‘Huge conflict of interest’: Canadian academics denounce fossil fuel funded curricula

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society is being called out once again, for its energy-centred curriculums created in partnership with fossil fuel companies. By Pippa Norman

This is the second open letter that has been written, asking the Royal Canadian Geographic Society to cut ties with fossil fuel giants, Shell and CAPP. | Willie B. Thomas/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Emily Eaton is a geographer and most of the time, she’s proud of it. 

But when her colleague from the University of British Columbia asked for her help writing an open letter to demand the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) cut ties with fossil fuel companies in creating school curricula, she said it hurt.

“The Royal Geographic Society of Canada is representing our discipline,” Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Regina, said. “It hurts a little bit more to know that they, in particular, would partner with organizations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or Shell.”

The letter Eaton played a part in orchestrating was circulated publicly on April 12 and has since garnered almost 200 signatures. Students, educators and academics from schools across Canada have signed the letter demanding the fossil fuel industry end its involvement in children’s education.

New anger about old issues

Fossil-fuel funded curricula are not new. FortisBC has a similar curriculum for K-12 students that was called out by a different open letter earlier this year, denouncing its influence in classrooms. That campaign grew to a head only a month earlier when a doctor in Salmon Arm, B.C., spoke out after her son brought home homework from the FortisBC curriculum.

This time it's the Energy IQ curriculum sparking outrage. Backed by the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the curriculum has stirred controversy since 2013, when it was released by the RCGS publication, Canadian Geographic Education. At the time, two Vancouver high school students penned a letter asking the publication to pull Energy IQ from schools.

But in the almost decade since, the curriculum has remained available for elementary, intermediate and secondary classrooms across B.C.

The Energy IQ lesson plans are designed to help teachers present their students with a “balanced perspective” of Canada’s energy industry, according to a 2021 CAPP press release.

Teachers who use Energy IQ lessons will recognize “the role oil and natural gas play in Canada’s economy,” and will be able “...to present energy-related issues with a clearer understanding,” while “investigating timelines and consequences behind different energy choices,” claims the fossil fuel industry group.

Eaton and the 200 people who have signed the recent open letter disagree. The letter states that through the CAPP curriculum the fossil fuel industry is infiltrating schools as part of a larger “regime of obstruction” that is preventing a necessary energy transition in Canada.

“The resources being promoted by the RCGS downplay the consequences of fossil fuel extraction,” the letter states.

Unfair emphasis on individual actions

One major problem with the CAPP curriculum, says Eaton, is the onus it places on individuals to minimize their personal energy consumption instead of recognizing the role fossil fuel producers play in driving emissions.

In a report looking at the influence of the fossil fuel industry on environmental education in Saskatchewan, Eaton describes the tactic as a form of “market environmentalism.”

By prioritizing market-based solutions and individual voluntary action over government and societal-level action, market environmentalism steers the conversation away from “systemic change or corporate culpability.”

“Ultimately, these educational materials do a disservice to students, as they evade the issue of corporate power altogether, while engendering a fantasy that small changes in personal consumption habits have the power to effectively address the planetary-scale threat of climate change,” Eaton writes.

It's a pattern Eaton and co-author Simon Enoch document over and over across multiple curricula. 

The CAPP-backed curriculum isn't the only oil and gas industry developed learning tools circulating in B.C. schools.

Developed by Canadian Geographic and Shell plc, the Classroom Energy Diet Challenge offers teachers a number of different challenges to complete with their students, all while reenforcing the idea that individual actions to save energy and decrease fossil fuel usage.

In “How big are your carbon feet?” students compare their carbon footprints with someone in the developed world or make a plan to reduce it. In one piece of artwork posted to a Vancouver elementary classroom’s profile on Canadian Geographic Education’s website, a wolf is shown howling next to planet Earth with the message "SAVE ENERGY" emblazoned over the top.  

In the Vancouver Island community of Sooke, School District 62 school trustee Allison Watson said having curricula funded by CAPP and Shell concerns her. Earlier this year, Watson spoke out over the use of the FortisBC curriculum in local schools. The Shell and CAPP curricula have only added to her stress, she said.

“I really think there’s a huge conflict of interest having the fossil fuel industry involved around energy education,” Watson said. “It further emphasizes that a lot of people don’t understand how fully a crisis we’re in.” 

Access to resources and teacher autonomy

While Watson has successfully put forth motions within her school board to review the use of the FortisBC curriculum, she said teacher autonomy must be respected when discussing what lesson materials teachers should have access to.

“You can’t just come in and ban resources,” Watson said.

Eaton added that teachers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and parts of B.C. face a “different type of social pressure” because many the parents of many students work in or are connected to the fossil fuel industry.

Teaching materials that lay out a different energy narrative are hard to come by in Canada, she said.

“These resources that are readily available and already formatted in a really digestible manner become really attractive to teachers, and [the resources] smuggle in their own messages with them that are usually pro-fossil fuel,” Eaton said, referring to the CAPP and Shell curricula.

Waiting on change

While Eaton said she hasn’t heard a response to the open letter yet, she’s hoping for a result that brings the RCGS to sever ties with its fossil fuel partners in education.

“Given that there are quite a few signatures on [the letter], and a lot of the Canadian public is increasingly supportive of cutting ties… [the RCGS] should take that seriously and follow suit,” she said.

“And if they don't, it certainly will diminish my view of them.”

With files from Stefan Labbé