By Rick Daysog
[email protected]
Published: Tuesday, Sep. 7, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 7, 2010 - 6:58 am

BP, the energy giant responsible for the largest offshore oil spill in history, helped develop the state's framework for teaching more than 6 million students about the environment.

Despite a mixed environmental record even before the Gulf of Mexico disaster, state officials included BP on the technical team for its soon-to-be-completed environmental education curriculum, which will be used in kindergarten through 12th-grade classes in more than 1,000 school districts statewide.

Environmental watchdogs and some experts who worked on the project said BP's involvement is troubling given its handling of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, which killed 11 workers and dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'd hate to see how a section in future textbooks mentioning the BP oil spill will look," said Lisa Graves, executive director for the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, a critic of so-called "greenwashing" techniques by corporations to make their products appear eco-friendly.

"I think it's very worrisome because their fundamental goal is to profit from energy and not to teach children," Graves said.

Officials with the California Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the curriculum project, said BP had a minor role in its early planning stages and was just one of dozens of stakeholders from a diverse range of interests.

Andrea Lewis, Cal EPA's assistant secretary for education and quality programs, said the bulk of work on the curriculum was done by specialists whose content was peer reviewed by outside experts.

BP declined comment on its involvement.

Dubbed the Education and the Environment Initiative, the state's curriculum project was launched by the Legislature in 2003 as the first effort by any state to develop a statewide curriculum for environmental education.

The seven-year project has produced more than 13,000 pages of teaching material about the environment for K-12 science, social studies and history courses.

The material, which was assembled by about 45 writers and 15 editors, has been approved by California's Board of Education and the state curriculum commission and is being used on a pilot basis in 19 school districts.

Cal EPA officials said they hope to have the materials available to all California schools by November or December if they can obtain necessary funding for the project.

The state has spent about $10 million so far and has launched a fundraising campaign to raise an additional $22 million over the next four years to pay for printing and other costs.

The technical working group on which BP sat was responsible for developing the program's guiding principles, said Sharon Fuller, an environmentalist who was a member of the technical team.

The 2003 law initially established 14 key areas for the curriculum project to focus on. They included subjects such as pollution prevention, toxic and hazardous waste management, and recycling.

The technical working group added about a dozen more subjects, including lessons on wetlands and coastal ecosystems, water pollution, soil contamination and energy conservation.

In 2004, the group met monthly, Fuller said. Members included state agencies, universities and environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, the California Air Resources Board, and the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources.

Also at the table were for-profit corporations and trade organizations such as PG&E Corp., Sempra Energy and the American Plastics Council. BP was the only oil company in the group.

Fuller, who founded the Richmond-based Ma'at Youth Academy, which educates children about the environment in the Bay Area, questioned why the firm was included, given its environmental record.

Even before the gulf spill, BP had been subject to a number of federal criminal investigations and paid substantial fines for environmental abuses.

But Gerald Lieberman, a curriculum expert who served as the state's consultant, said it was important to get all sides of the environmental debate involved in developing the classroom materials. The result, he said, is balanced.

"This is one of the best standards-based curriculums in the nation," Lieberman said.

Monica Ward, a history teacher in Riverside and a member of the state curriculum commission, said she found the material very helpful for her 10th-grade students.

She said her students got a good understanding of the environmental fallout from Europe's industrial revolution and other eras, and that the material connected those topics to what's happening in the world today.

"My kids loved it," Ward said.

BP is the world's sixth-largest oil producer, according to Forbes magazine. The company, which recently switched its corporate slogan to "Beyond Petroleum," owns the Arco gasoline brand and a 260,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Carson.

In recent years, the company has spent heavily on green education initiatives in California. BP has handed out more than $8 million in teacher grants and scholarships for energy education and conservation since 2004. And in 2007, the company pledged $500 million over 10 years to develop the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley. That investment attracted protests on the Berkeley campus by consumer groups and academics.

BP's investment in the Berkeley program is mentioned favorably in material for 12th-grade science students.

A booklet dubbed "The Life and Times of Carbon" includes a reprinted article by two biological sciences professors from UC San Diego hailing the BP-Berkeley deal as "a major research project" and one of several "new technological developments on the horizon."

AT A GLANCE

The Education and the Environment Initiative, launched in 2003, is the first effort by any state to develop a statewide curriculum for environmental education.

WHO WILL USE IT?

Kindergarten through 12th-grade classes in more than 1,000 school districts statewide.

WHAT IS IT?

More than 13,000 pages of teaching material about the environment for science, social studies and history courses.