The fossil fuel industry has dug its claws in deep into the American education system. So, too, have utilities.
Kids in Massachusetts received propaganda from a local utility extolling the virtues of natural gas. On Twitter last week, Cambridge, Massachusetts resident Gleb Bahmutov shared photos of two different booklets he said his son brought home from elementary school that were produced by Eversource Energy. The pictures Bahmutov posted show activities in the booklets (one of which is titled “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend”) that encourage kids to identify appliances in the house that are powered by natural gas and complete a simple maze leading from gas stores underground to homes and factories. According to Bahmutov, the booklets contained no mention of climate change.
“Eversource is not a company that should be publishing activity books,” Bahmutov later told the AP. “It sounds like propaganda, and I was born in the Soviet Union, so I don’t use that term lightly.”
A URL on the front cover of the booklets directs readers to go to a website, E-Smart Kids, run by utility Xcel Energy and produced by Culver Company, which also published the booklets Bahmutov posted. While Eversource’s specific page on the E-Smart Kids site is no longer online, a Wayback Machine capture of the site shows many of the same features still active on the main page, including a game called Pipewinder where kids can build a pipeline.
“We regularly provide our customers with important natural gas safety information, and these books were developed to help raise awareness about the importance of natural gas safety at home and provide other information about natural gas,” Eversource said in a statement in response to several questions about the booklets’ existence in tandem with the utility’s clean energy goals and if they’d ever produced a similar booklet about renewable energy or climate change. “We recognize and agree that these materials can be improved and do not plan to distribute any more until they are updated. Moving forward, we will work to include climate change information in future educational materials, as well as continue to provide important natural gas safety tips.”
The oil and gas industry has been working since the 1940s to push its propaganda on American schoolchildren, and the practice is still alive and well throughout the country. In 2017, a Koch Brothers-affiliated network mailed hundreds of thousands of copies of a book called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to educators in various states. Looking through the Culver Media catalog at their other offerings, however, still kind of feels like a fever dream. Many of the books available for kids—which utilities can order and brand with their logo for distribution—are safety-themed, but some of those seem to still contain promotional material about just how great natural gas is. Sprinkled throughout are some books with vague environmental messages (“Teach children in grades 2-3 the importance of keeping our environment clean by recycling, planting trees and other plants and flowers to clean the air, and never littering,” one description reads), but only three booklets seem to directly address climate change or renewable energy.
Eversource is New England’s largest utility, and if the name sounds familiar, it’s because they got themselves into a bit of hot water last week after a slideshow panicking over the future of the natural gas industry produced by a coalition it once spearheaded was leaked to E&E News. The utility—which has made its clean energy goals a large part of its recent public-facing image, but also paid $1.1 billion to acquire a natural gas company last year—told E&E News that “the company does not and will not support any efforts that conflict with the company moving our gas business toward a cleaner energy future for our customers.”
The natural gas industry is on the defensive as electrification campaigns grow across the country and gas bans become more commonplace. Utilities that are heavily invested in gas are also in trouble as grow in market share and the politics shift toward them. It’s important to keep an eye out even in places you might not expect—like a kids’ backpack or desk—to see what they’ll try to spin next.