BP Funds Climate Change Education

By virtue of its catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil company BP has become a regular visitor to America's televisions, newspapers, magazines, and computers. We've met its spokespeople, its officials, its CEOs. We've been told about the company's clean-up efforts and how it would make good on its financial obligations to everyone harmed by the disaster. We've been subjected to altered photos on the company's website. We've been apologized to and continuously misinformed about how much oil was gushing into the Gulf.


Now, thanks to the folks at the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch, we are learning even more about BP. The global oil, gas, and chemical company is playing a significant role in what is being taught about climate change in the public schools of America.


Apparently, BP has close links to the Alliance for Climate Education, Inc. (ACE), an Oakland, California-based group that is the "nation's largest provider of climate change education in public schools." According to a PR Watch report, ACE "offers high schools free multimedia assemblies on climate change that utilize 'cutting-edge animation, music and video'." PR Watch notes that ACE's featured web content on the oil spill "does not even mention 'BP'," although it conceded the unimpeachable fact that the spill was a "disaster." Carefully-chosen images include a swimming dolphin, a rescued pelican, a clean-up worker, and a photo of the effort to extinguish the Deepwater Horizon rig fire.


According to the PR Watch report, ACE came up with some suggestions for activities that "young people can engage in to address their feelings of helplessness about the spill," including that they "get a hair cut" and donate it "to a group that makes hair-filled booms to soak up oil." (The government's Deepwater Horizon Response office rejected the use of hair-filled booms in the Gulf months ago.)


Another ACE suggestion? "Find a beach and participate in Hands Across the Sand—a big demonstration in favor of protection of our coastal economies, oceans, marine wildlife and fishing industries." Other ideas include, "Write a letter to Congress and ask them to fully-fund larger coastal restoration projects" and "share info online."


ACE's website is "also sprinkled with corporate names, logos, and subtle, green-themed cross-promotions." The PR report maintains that, "ACE recommends a climate change curriculum, for example, called 'Facing the Future' funded by Hewlett-Packard. Most people know about HP due to their ink-eating printers, but HP is also in the oil and gas business…[and] has worked closely with BP and other companies in oil exploration." There are also "logos from soft drink and snack food companies that are eager to ensure their brands have maximum exposure to teens." At its website, ACE points out that it is "in the running" for a $250,000 grant from the "Pepsi Refresh Project–Do Good For The Gulf," which is part of the soft drink giant's $1.3 million giveaway to communities impacted by the oil spill. Another page urges kids to participate in environmentally-themed bicycle ride promotions for Clif Bars.


ACE claims to have "reached 421,571 students at 891 schools," and "set up ten offices throughout the country in Oakland, New York, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, New England, Denver, Atlanta, Houston, and Austin." It has "a marketing expert (Matt Stewart) and a national campaigns manager (Michael LaFemina)," and last year (its first year of existence) it "awarded $130,000 to students in the form of grants and scholarships."


ACE had a presence "at ESPN's Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado (a commercial event), the Earth Day Celebration on the national Mall in Washington, DC (whose sponsors included Disney, T-Mobile, and FedEx), and at the Governor's Conference on Climate Change. The organization also has a retrofitted school bus complete with corporate logos that it has funded for a 'BioBus' concert tour, stopping in places like skate parks, beaches, and summer camps…. Thus, in a remarkably short time, ACE has managed to turn itself into one of the most powerful, well-funded organizations teaching high-school students about climate change in America today."


ACE's start-up funding of $2.6 million came from Michael Haas, the group's founder, who made his career in wind power, most notably from Orion Energy. "In 2006," the report points out, "Haas sold Orion to BP Alternative Energy for an undisclosed sum. The price has not been publicly disclosed, but what is known is that BP acquired two companies in 2006, Orion Energy, LLC, and Greenlight Energy, Inc., paying a combined total of $688 million for both. As part of that deal, Haas continues to serve as President of Orion Energy, which is now a subsidiary of BP."


Haas is chair of ACE's Board of Directors, which has two other members: Haas's father, Robert Haas, and Jim Elsen, who is also Vice President of Policy and Regulatory Affairs for BP Alternative Energy. Anne Landman and Ross Wolfarth, authors of the PR Watch report, point out that, "The lack of transparency about ACE's ties to BP and its remarkably well-funded nationwide reach into public schools is raising eyebrows among climate change educators."


In late June, ACE's executive director, Pic Walker, wrote a "Year in Review" column, which pointed out that "ACE had a terrific first year." In his "FinalNote," however, Walker wrote that "ACE had been fortunate to expand our base of support this year through generous grants from a variety of individuals, foundations, and government agencies and will continue to do so in the year to come. We recently heard from partners who received false information claiming ACE is intimately tied to BP, in that all our funding and organizational oversight comes from BP. I want to clarify that ACE has no connections financially or otherwise with BP. We are an independent 501c3 with a diversity of funders and will always develop our programs and manage the organization free from influence from outside organizations or companies."


The authors of the report note that Walker's "denial appears to be very carefully framed…. By defining the claim as 'all' funding 'and' oversight come from BP, ACE can easily state that the purported claim is untrue. This leaves room for much funding and oversight from the two men who spend some of their work week in the BP executive quarters upstairs. At the same time, Walker states that ACE has 'no connections financially or otherwise with BP,' which means the corporation does not directly give money to ACE. BP, however, does not appear to mind having the president of its subsidiary spend 25 hours a week helping ACE while paying him an undisclosed sum."


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.