The famous Churchill’s phrase “history is written by the victors,” may soon stop being true in the Canadian Province of Alberta, where the Education Department announced that the oil industry will be allowed to influence the school curriculum.
Alberta is home to a growing energy sector and a booming production of oil that in 2011 allowed the country to export 1.3 million barrels per day (bbl/d) of crude to the United States, covering 15 per cent of their total imports.
The province’s proven oil reserves stem mostly from tar sands and are estimated to total 170 billion barrels, an amount that places the country third in the global ranking for crude oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In 2011 the region’s energy sector accounted for 27.6 per cent of the province GDP and gave employment to 116,000 people.
The powerful Canadian oil industry is set to soon extend its influence well beyond the confines of the economy and into the province’s educational system as the Department of Education will avails itself of their cooperation to draft the new curriculum for elementary schools starting from 2016.
According to Alberta’s Minister of Education Jeff Johnson, the cooperation of companies such as Syncrude Canada Ltd., Stantec Inc., Suncor Energy Inc. and Cenovus Energy for the draft of the school curriculum is a necessary step to build a relevant education system together with the business community and the strongest Province’s employers.
Deron Bilous, a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP), is one of the many critics who are voicing their concerns for the Education Department’s decision, calling it an “appalling” move.
In an interview with the Calgary Sun the politician lamented that the Province of Alberta is impeding teachers and parents to influence the development of the school education, but it will allow the oil industry to have a big say in it. He also questioned whether the real goal of such cooperation is to improve education or to just “create new workers for the oil companies.”
The Huffington Post noted that Canadian oil and gas companies have shown a growing interest in shaping schools curricula in recent years. A telling example is “Energy IQ,” a curriculum created by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), together with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, in order to teach the population notions such as growing demand, emerging technologies and energy mix, that only reveal the positive aspects of the country’s energy industry without mentioning uncomfortable truths.
What the oil companies do not like to talk about is that the techniques used to extract oil from tar sands produce three times more greenhouse gases than the conventional oil and are creating alarming levels of pollution in Alberta.
The effects on the local population are becoming increasingly evident in Fort Chipewyan in the north of the province. Dr. John O’Connor who has been treating local patients in the area reported extremely high rates of bile-duct cancer, a rare and incurable form of tumor that he believed to be caused by the chemicals emitted from tar sand facilities and dispersed in air and water.
There raises the question of whether the oil and gas industry’s inroad into Alberta’s schools is aimed at making young students aware of the dangerous health risks caused by their extractive processes or, on the contrary, at making sure that growing concerns in the Province will be stamped out by imbuing young generations of students with the belief that tar sands only bring prosperity and affluence to their hometowns.
Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema is strongly concerned about the prospect that energy companies will influence school education and thinks that the government should realize that “what’s good for the oil industry isn’t what’s good for the rest of Alberta” and that oil may run cars, but should never ever run government or schools.
By Stefano Salustri