Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Colouring book teaches kids the magic of hydraulic fracturing


Talisman Energy Inc., in its effort to convince the public it uses safe and modern drilling techniques, has knotted itself to an image the energy industry has been trying to shake for decades: the dinosaur age.

The company created "Talisman Terry the Fracosaurus" as a way to entertain - and educate - children when their parents are at Talisman information sessions. The character stars in a kids' colouring book, which is also posted in the "news" section of Talisman's U.S. website. Terry discusses the advantages of natural gas, how it is extracted, and illustrates the reclamation process.

Energy companies are increasingly trying to paint themselves as part of a fast-moving industry using modern, safe technology, arguing that the days of clunky and dirty operations are becoming a thing of the past. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers lobby group wants energy education included in school curriculums in its efforts to combat what it views unbalanced and erroneous representations of the industry.

Talisman Terry's outfit bears all the industry staples: a Talisman-branded hard hat, a hazmat vest with reflective stripes and his name on the tag, boots, and work gloves. He isn't wearing protective glasses, though, and his legs and tail are exposed - a safety no-no in the oil patch.

"We keep Terry a safe distance from the operations," said company spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland.

Ms. Buckland said Talisman's dinosaur predates the recent wave of opponents who question the safety of hydraulic fracturing and its effects on water sources. Terry, who has been around for more than a year, specifically mentions the Twin Tiers, part of the contentious Marcellus natural gas shale formation that extends to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Talisman Terry has not been employed in Canada.

In Canada, however, critics say the oil and gas industry is increasingly shaping education in ways that are more profound than a cute dinosaur. Consider Inside Education, a registered charity whose list of supporters includes nearly every major energy company in Canada - including Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc., Encana Corp., Imperial Oil Ltd., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Nexen Inc. and Husky Energy Inc.

Inside Education conducts professional development for teachers, with tours including visits to the oil sands and natural gas facilities. It also produces teaching resources such as a DVD entitled The Amazing Athabasca Oil Sands, which includes a first nations chief suggesting that the oil sands have been a favourable economic replacement for the fur trade. Syncrude Canada Ltd., the second-largest oil sands miner, has also visited classrooms to give presentations on the mine reclamation process.

Andrew Hodgkins, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, attended one of Inside Education's professional development trips, which he described as "a bunch of public relations." But Inside Education's work has won awards, and its partners include the Alberta government. And questions of corporate involvement in education are difficult, because industry spending often provides better facilities and opportunities for students.

Mr. Hodgkins believes it's often a negative impact, a view he has espoused in several papers critical of industry's impact on the classroom. In one, called "Petrol's Paid Pipers" and published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, he concludes: "Governments, not industry, must fund education, otherwise we will continue to run the risk of prostituting our schools and ourselves to the technocratic market-driven imperatives conceived of and developed by a select few."