Oregon gas utility NW Natural offered free activity booklets in English and Spanish to schools in its service territory last year. The booklets target kids as young as kindergarten with games and puzzles that position fossil gas as a clean source of energy. The utility claims the materials relate to safety, and as a result, the company is trying to get ratepayers to cover the costs of the campaign. But a coalition of environmental groups opposing the move argue that the school booklet initiative was instead a propaganda campaign aimed at influencing children.
Last year, NW Natural, Oregon’s largest gas utility, sent emails and print mailers to schools in its service territory, offering free gas-related activity booklets for children, according to testimony filed with the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) in April by environmental groups, including the Coalition of Communities of Color and Climate Solutions. The groups are represented by lawyers from Earthjustice and the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School.
The mailers offered five booklets that include puzzles, word games, matching, cartoons, and other activities targeting students as young as kindergarten. Some sections included safety information and tips on energy conservation, but many others promote natural gas, describe its benefits, or position gas as a clean alternative to dirtier fuels.
On a website setup for the activity booklets, NW Natural included teacher guides, sample tests, and information about how the materials can contribute to achieving state educational standards in Oregon and Washington. ”NW Natural knows that teachers possess the power to enlighten students. We also know that any worthwhile effort requires commitment and resources. That’s why we’re glad to offer you FREE educational booklets and downloadable teacher’s guides and pre/post tests,” the website says.
But environmental groups view the booklets as an attempt to sway children. “The primary purpose of these booklets is to promote continued use and consumption of fossil gas by influencing public opinion, in this case — the next generation,” Greer Ryan, a policy manager at Oregon-based Climate Solutions, wrote in the testimony filed with the PUC.
Promoting “Clean” Gas to Kids
In one booklet aimed at children in kindergarten through 2nd grade, a friendly mouse called “Nat” and a cat called “Gus” explore everyday activities that involve the use of natural gas. One exercise asks kids to circle all the things in the home that use gas, including a barbeque, heater, oven, fireplace, warm bath, clothes dryer, water heater, furnace, and even an outdoor gas-lit street lamp. The “Learning Connection” concludes that “Natural gas can be used in many ways in and around our homes.”
The booklets also try to link natural gas in children’s minds to entertainment. Under the title of “Natural Gas Helps,” one cartoon depicts a man handing a boy a baseball bat, and the blurb reads: “Natural gas can be used by industry to manufacture products like video games and baseball bats.”
In a booklet targeting older kids between grades 4 and 6, one exercise is titled: “Could You Survive Without Using Energy?” The kids are asked to list the ways they use energy, and are given an example. The first line is filled in with “took a shower,” followed by the appliance used (a water heater). The last section asks the energy source, and the booklets have “natural gas” already filled in. Call-out boxes at the bottom of the page challenge kids to write about how they’d survive for a day without energy (“Bonus: What would you do for fun?”) and to “make a poster, rap song, mini-book, or oral presentation” about one of the booklet’s “natural gas science facts or safety tips.”
Throughout the booklets, kids are prompted with the cartoons and then are asked to recall what they’ve read, such as what areas of the home use natural gas, and what kind of vehicle the cat is driving. (Answer: a bus that runs on natural gas.)
The bus-driving cat makes an appearance in several activity booklets. One page entitled “A Special Bus Powered by Natural Gas,” shows the cat with a boy and the mouse as passengers. Emblazoned on the side of the bus is a banner that says: “This Bus Is Powered By Natural Gas.” On the next page, the booklet prompts kids to circle things that are clean, and put an “X” through things that are dirty. The kids first need to decide between a clean, well-dressed mouse, or a cat caked in mud. Next, kids are shown two images of nearly identical buses, one labeled “Diesel Bus,” and the other labeled “Bus” next to an icon of a blue gas flame. The diesel bus has a trail of gray exhaust streaming out of its tailpipe, while the natural-gas-powered bus does not and is driving under a cheerful cartoon sun. Solidifying the message, the “Learning Connection” says: “Natural gas burns more cleanly than diesel fuel.”
Nowhere do the booklets mention electric buses or electric appliances, which, unlike their gas counterparts, do not emit harmful pollutants that exacerbate the climate crisis.
The coalition of environmental groups opposing NW Natural at the PUC say the school booklets are an influence campaign to mold how children perceive gas. “[I]t is concerning that school children would be subject to misinformation from corporate entities of any kind, but especially by a corporation selling a product that can be harmful to children’s health,” Ryan stated in the testimony.
NW Natural is asking the PUC to hike rates on its gas customers, including a 12 percent increase for residential rates. As part of this request, the utility wants to bill customers for its school booklet campaign.
PUCs can approve rate recovery for safety-related advertising that utilities are required by law to communicate to the public. NW Natural claims its school booklets are aimed at improving public safety awareness.
The activity booklets do include some pages on safety and energy conservation, advising kids to alert adults if they smell a gas odor, to keep toys away from gas appliances, and to turn down the thermostat.
But the groups opposing NW Natural’s current rate hike request contend that promoting safety is not the booklets’ main aim.
“There’s no way that the primary purpose of this is to inform kids about the potential that they could dig into the sidewalk and damage a pipeline. That is not what these booklets are,” Jaimini Parekh, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, told DeSmog. “Not in any type of way. Like Little Billy and his baseball bat that was made by the gas company…that is not about safety of the distribution system.”
Parekh added that even if safety were the main purpose, sending that information to children makes no sense. Federal regulations governing communicating with the public about safety of the pipeline distribution system recommend targeting emergency officials, public officials, excavators or contractors doing construction, land developers, and residents living along the right-of-way where pipelines are located.
To the extent that schools should be a target of safety-related communications at all, the school itself should be the audience, not children, Parekh said.
“I find it dangerous to be honest. I find it dangerous because it is attempting to influence the next generation in how they are thinking about fossil gas as a service,” Parekh said. “Why is it that a utility company feels so threatened that they need to try to influence the minds of children in how they are thinking about the impacts of gas?”
The booklets also omit the long list of the safety, health, and environmental problems associated with the gas industry. “None of the booklets describe the problem of climate change, or the fact that extracting, producing, transporting, distributing, and burning fossil gas contributes to global climate change,” Ryan wrote in the testimony. “None of the booklets describe harms to air quality or groundwater aquifers from gas drilling activities, or the harms such activities pose to the health of communities living near to gas extraction.”
NW Natural did not respond to a list of questions about where the booklets were sent or how they were distributed. Instead, spokesperson Stefanie Week said that the booklets “are for our public safety awareness program as recommended by federal regulations for pipeline operators,” and that “[t]he program is audited by the Oregon Public Utility Commission.” Week did not respond to a question about why a safety awareness program was targeting children, and not school officials. Week also didn’t respond to a question about how games and puzzles related to this criteria.
Week did note that other utilities also use school materials from the same publisher, Culver Company, including Oregon’s PGE and nearly a dozen others. DeSmog posed questions to Culver, but the company demurred, stating that questions should go to NW Natural.
NW Natural Seeks to Weaken Portland Public Schools’ Climate Policy
While NW Natural was promoting gas to children, it also sought to water down a signature climate policy under consideration by the largest school system in the state in order to protect its interests.
Portland Public Schools (PPS) began drawing up a major climate initiative two years ago, aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions from its operations while also incorporating climate justice into its curriculum.
In February 2022, as the PPS board neared a critical vote on the policy, NW Natural sent comments to PPS board members with suggested revisions to the policy’s wording. While expressing support for climate goals and decarbonization generally, the utility offered specific changes that would have weakened the language.
The draft called for a prohibition on new fossil fuel infrastructure, including gas-fired equipment, in all new buildings and modernizations, as well as a phaseout on fossil fuel infrastructure in existing buildings by 2050. NW Natural’s suggested revision tweaked the language, conspicuously removing the ban on gas infrastructure and replacing it with the installation of “renewable fuel appliances” in all new buildings, plus a net-zero emissions goal by 2050.
The new language would have left a lot more wiggle room for industry-friendly solutions such as “renewable natural gas,” which is methane captured from landfills and animal feedlots. As DeSmog has previously reported, NW Natural is heavily advertising its investments in renewable natural gas with claims and messaging that critics have called “misleading.” RNG is very limited in supply, enormously expensive, and still emits greenhouse gasses. Moreover, NW Natural, despite its advertising, is not delivering RNG to Oregonian homes or businesses. Instead, it has invested in a handful of projects around the country from which it can obtain credits akin to a carbon offset program. Oregonians are still receiving fossil gas just as before.
NW Natural’s input on the proposed policies “didn’t make any sense because we are trying to get to net-zero carbon and we would have to basically eliminate the use of fossil fuels, go electric, use solar,” Mike Rosen, a former Portland Public Schools board member who spent years working on the policy, told DeSmog. “I don’t know if we were surprised. We knew we would get resistance from places like NW Natural…it just seemed like, what did they think we were trying to do, if not that?”
In its original comment to PPS, NW Natural justified the suggested changes by stating that it “has worked with PPS to convert boilers from fuel oil to natural gas at 16 schools in the last 10 years, driving down fuel costs and emissions for the District. We’d like to continue to be a positive partner in that effort.”
In a statement to DeSmog, NW Natural spokesperson Stefanie Week said: “We share the goals of decarbonizing the school system and our region, and we believe that the fastest, most affordable and most reliable way to do this is through utilizing both electric and gas energy systems.” Week added that the PPS policy would result in “higher energy costs” and “possible increased emissions.”
Rosen said NW Natural’s suggestions did not gain a lot of traction. Ultimately, PPS rejected the utility’s suggestions and kept the ban on new gas infrastructure. The PPS board approved the policy unanimously in March.
Rosen also didn’t think highly of NW Natural’s campaign to send activity booklets to school children aimed at influencing their perceptions of gas. “We are trying to teach our kids now about the climate crisis. To have the natural gas industry come in and tout the clean element of natural gas…I think it’s ridiculous,” he said.
“I mean, it’s kind of like the old ads that used to appear in magazines talking about DDT and how DDT is your friend. It’s just the wrong message at the wrong time,” Rosen said. “I hope it gets no traction. It’s just propaganda.”