The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools

Muffett shared it exclusively with Earther and Drilled, and Amy and I had him walk us through it in the episode. But it really has to be seen to get the full effect. It was made by John Tobin, a well-known oil industry consultant, for an industry-backed group called the Energy Literacy Project.

The slideshow is a little hard to parse at times, but the basic points are clear. In it, Tobin lays out the idea that public education about energy can help the oil industry maintain its social license to operate despite scientists’ increasingly dire warnings about the role it plays in driving the climate crisis and growing public desire to get off fossil fuels. In his words, “the industry can be profitable in spite of its image.”

“The public’s perception of the industry has been abysmal for years,” said Tobin in an interview. “And getting a more positive view, starting in K through 12 and keeping going, including adults and so on? We like to call it … developing science-savvy citizens, that will be able to make informed, well-reasoned decisions on their prudent use of natural resources, oil and gas in particular, and be able to make well-reasoned decisions on how they want to see the industry regulated.”

Advertisement

Image for article titled The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools

Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Center for International Environmental Law

It’s not just any kind of energy education that Tobin’s presentation mentions, though. In the presentation, he specifically outlines an approach called the three Es, which he calls “a path to an improved image (and, potentially, improved profits).” The Es stand for energy, economy, and environment, and it seems they’re in that order intentionally.

Advertisement

The idea is that every policy decision must weigh the impact on each of these three facets of human life. Exxon used this three Es paradigm, too—they called it the “energy cube.” 

Image for article titled The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools

Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Center for International Environmental Law

Advertisement

That may sound reasonable, because sure, we have to consider the economic impacts of policies on ordinary people. Winding down the fossil fuel industry would have both environmental, economic, and energy impacts. (Done properly, those impacts are all positive.) But even though one of his Es is “environment,” Tobin doesn’t say much about considering the environmental impacts of oil and gas in his slideshow—the word “climate” appears just once and the word “pollution” doesn’t appear at all. But he does note that preserving the environment comes with a price. One slideshow shows a mountain landscape with the title [sic] “The Price of Pristiness.”

“That’s a wonderful picture of one of our mountains here in Colorado during the fall,” Tobin said in an interview, noting it’s also his screensaver. “These sort of views, these sort of things that we consider to be part of our lifestyle, what we want to have, it costs.”

Advertisement

I asked Tobin if he thought that the threat of climate change should be a primary driver of changing the energy mix. “There is no question that climate change is there, and it’s not good,” he said. “Is it Doomsday? That’s a harder argument.”

There are some other interesting slides, like one where Tobin explains how different hydrocarbons end in “ane,” and then adds, for some reason, “cocaine.”

Advertisement

Image for article titled The ABCs of Big Oil: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Infiltrated Schools

Screenshot: Energy Literacy Project via Center for International Environmental Law

But though some slides are strange, the basic message shines through: The oil industry should make sure people know how dependent their access to energy—and the economy—are on the sector. In one slide, Tobin writes, “The people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall be fueled by cheap and abundant energy.”

Advertisement

I asked Tobin if he thought the public needed to be educated in school about the environmental implications of using different kinds of energy. He said, sure, but not separate from the other Es while saying “free markets” should be the driver of any energy transition. “I think the answer is yes, but within the context of the big picture of, what does the economy need in terms of energy?”

Amy Westervelt contributed reporting for this piece.

Advertisement

Leave a Comment