This story is part of “Climate Crimes,” a special series by The GuardianCovering Climate Now focuses on the role of the fossil fuel industry in the climate crisis and the lies it has told the American people.
The oil and natural gas industry wants to play word-and-picture associations with you. Think of four images. A brightly-colored backpack with pencils, a smiling teacher holding a tablet under her arm, glasses resting on a stack pastel notebooks, and an inviting school bus welcoming the young student aboard.
“What do all of these have in common?” an April 6th, Facebook postThe New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) asked. “They are powered by oil and natural gas!”
Here in New Mexico — the fastest-warming Most water-stressed state in the continental United States, where wildfires have recently devoured over 120,000 acres and remain uncontained — the oil and gas industry is coming out in force to deepen the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. Their latest tactic was to make oil and gas the patron saint of education. Powerful interest groups have deployed a months-long campaign to depict schools and children’s wellbeing as under threat if government officials infringe upon fossil fuel production.
In a Video spotThis strategy is exemplary Ashley NimanFourth grade teacher at Enchanted Hill elementary school, explains to viewers that the industry is what allows her to do her job.
“Without oil and gas, we would not have the resources to provide an exemplary education for our students,” she says. “The partnership we have with the oil and gas industry makes me a better teacher.”
The video, from September of last year, is part of a PR campaign by NMOGA called “Safer and Stronger.” It’s one of many similar strategies The GuardianIt was tracked across social media and television. Social scientists refers to themselves as the “fossil fuel savior frame.”
“What NMOGA and the oil and gas industry are saying is that we hold New Mexico’s public education system hostage to our profit-motivated interests,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. “There’s an implied threat there.”
New Mexico received $2.5 billion in the last year. $1.1 billion from mineral leasing on federal lands — more than any other state. Officials are attempting to resolve the issue of the fossil fuel industry’s declining prospects. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by halfThis decade. Before mid-April, the Biden Administration had stopped all new oil & gas leasing and the number permits for drilling on public lands. Plummeted.
In response, pro-industry groups are pushing out what some experts have called “sky is falling” messaging that generates the impression that without oil and gas revenue, the state’s education system is on a chopping block. (NMOGA didn’t respond to our request for comment).
NMOGA has been flooded with school-related motifs on its social media channels since February. Buses BooksImages of empty, abandoned places are also included. Classrooms accompanied by reminders about how the state’s schools “rely on oil and gas production on federal land for more than $700 million in funding.”
This framing has been repeated by elected officials.
“This is a matter of critical importance to all, but especially to New Mexico’s schoolchildren, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic,” state representative Yvette Herrell co-wrote in the Santa Fe New MexicanFebruary
Experts in tax, budget, and public education funding say that linking the federal leasing pause with a grave, immediate threat to public education is deceptive.
“Any slight reductions stemming from pauses or other so-called ‘adverse’ actions would have zero immediate effect on school funding overall, much less whether students get the services they need to recover from the ill effects on their learning from the pandemic,” said Charles Goodmacher, former government and media relations director at the National Education Association, now a consultant. He stated that leasing does not guarantee immediate drilling. Many companies hold onto leases for months to years before production takes place.
New Mexico is home to a number of thriving businesses. budget surplusRecord production.
Industry attempts to convince New Mexicans that the state’s public education system is wholly dependent on oil and gas are based on a tough truth: Jahrzehnte of steep tax reductions have indeed positioned fossil fuels as the thunder behind Democratic-led New Mexico’s economy. 2021 15% of the state’s general fund came from royalties, rents and other fees that the Department of Interior collects from mineral extraction on federal lands. Oil and gas activity on federal and state lands contributes approximately A third of the state’s general fund of $7.2 billion, as well as a third of its education budget.
Commissioner of public lands Stephanie Garcia Richard, herself a former classroom teacher, has been at the forefront of efforts to diversify the New Mexican economy since she was elected to manage the state’s 13 million acres of public lands in 2018.
“When I ran, in my first campaign, we talked a lot about how a schoolteacher really understands what every dime that this office makes means to a classroom.”
Garcia Richard is proud to have been elected as the first Latina, woman, and teacher to lead the office which oversees around 200,000 people. Revenues of $1 billionEach year. Since 2019 she’s launched a renewable energy office and outdoor recreation office to raise money from those activities, though Garcia Richard doesn’t believe that money will ever fully make up for oil and gas revenue. “I don’t want anybody ever to think that I have some notion that the revenue diversification strategies we’re pursuing right now somehow make a billion dollars.”
New Mexico attorney general Hector Balderas, a Democrat, is another top state official charged with managing the state’s energy and economic transition.
Given the same geographic features that make New Mexico the “land of enchantment,” the state is positioned to become a national leader in solar energy, Balderas said. But four of the state’s major solar farms are severely behind schedule.
Balderas, who accepted $49,900 in campaign contributions from oil and gas over seven election cycles, said that a sudden disruption in new oil and gas leasing — such as the blanket moratorium the Biden administration originally proposed in January last year — would have an outsized impact on New Mexico’s most vulnerable.
“You would cut out nearly a third of the revenue that we rely on to fund our schools and our roads and our law enforcement community,” he said. “I don’t think environmental activists really think about that perspective: How progressives have cleaner air but then thrust original Americans like Native American pueblos into further economic poverty.”
Some who are at the receiving end of oil-and-gas revenue stress that not all students and educators embrace fossil fuel industry money in public school. Mary Bissell is an algebra teacher at Rio Rancho’s Cleveland high school. Cosigned a letter in November, along with more than 200 educators, asking NMOGA to “stop using New Mexico’s teachers and kids as excuses for more oil and gas development.”
Bissell says in spite of how cash-strapped schools may be, many of her colleagues don’t want oil and gas money.
“I’m not going to teach my kids how to find slope based on fracking,” she said of her math courses. Bissel characterized NMOGA’s attempt to portray educators as a unified force beholden to oil and gas funding as “disgusting.”
In some states, this includes Rhode Island MassachusettsState attorneys general, who are the most prominent law enforcement and consumer protection officers, have taken it upon their shoulders to sue oil-and gas companies for misleading consumers and investors about climate changes through their marketing. Balderas’s office said it is not actively pursuing that strategy at this time.
Seneca Johnson, 20 years old, is a student leader with Youth United for Climate Action, is from Oklahoma’s Muscogee Nation. Johnson grew up in New Mexico and knows first-hand about the state’s underfunded schools.
“I remember in elementary school we would have a list: bring three boxes of tissues, or colored pencils,” she said, speaking of Chaparral Elementary School in Santa Fe. “As students and as teachers, [you’re] buying the supplies for the classroom.”
Johnson recalls being told when she was a child that the schools she attended were ranked Second worstThe nation. If New Mexico’s education system is indeed that bad, she said, how can officials continue to think that accepting a funding structure that delivers such a consistently poor result is a good idea?
“At the end of the day the system that we have now that is being paid for by oil and gas doesn’t work, and we know it doesn’t work,” Johnson said. “It’s the whole ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ kind of mentality,” she said, linking the industry’s patronizing messaging around its support for schools to a direct legacy of colonization.
“I don’t want to have to rely on this outside entity. I don’t want to have to rely on this broken system. I want better for my kids and their kids and my whole community.”
Climate Change and Kids: A new book reveals why some schools fail to teach science to children