Utah Earth Day Poster Contest Promotes Fossil Fuels

2012 utah earth day poster winner 660True or false? Earth Day was created in 1970 to celebrate all the wonderful ways that our society benefits from mining coal, extracting natural gas and burning fossil fuels.

If you were a student in Utah this year, you might be tempted to answer “True,” thanks to an Earth Day poster contest that’s being promoted in the state’s elementary schools. Sponsors are the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Salt Lake Petroleum Section, and the Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining.

I was at a friend’s house a few days ago when I first learned about the contest.  There was a poster sitting in the living room that proclaimed: “Where would we be without oil, gas, and mining?” Underneath, it had drawings and descriptions of things like “No electricity,” “No diamonds,” and “No Disneyland.”  I asked what the poster was for, and my friend told me it was for the Earth Day poster contest going on at the school our children attend together.

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly.  An Earth Day poster contest?

She told me she was understandably a bit confused by the contest guidelines herself, but then showed me where to read about them, so I did. They can be found at http://bit.ly/Zu7708. Flabbergasted by what I read, I did some research to find out more. “Entry Instructions for Principals and Teachers” for the contest can be found at http://1.usa.gov/X0Kgcu.

Students are instructed to “Show where we would be without…oil, gas, and mined minerals.” For instance: “Coal, oil and natural gas provide most of the energy we use for heat, light, and electricity. We use mined materials and petroleum products every day in gasoline, cars, computers, skateboards, home-building materials, and tools.”

Posters are to be judged on their “demonstration of how products from mining and oil & gas extraction are essential to our daily lives.” Among other prizes, the winners will receive a certificate signed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

As this seemed like an odd emphasis for Earth Day, not to mention a one-sided view of fossil fuels, I wrote letters asking for an explanation to the governor, my state senator, Stuart Adams, and my representative to the Utah House of Representatives, Roger Barrus. So far, Rep. Barrus is the only one to reply. “There is a program in our schools called mineral literacy,” he explained. “It is not propaganda…the school curriculum is already heavy with the renewable side of the energy discussion, which often demonizes fossil energy. That’s propaganda.”

I don’t think it is propaganda to state the obvious — that burning fossil fuels pollutes our air and in high concentrations creates a health hazard — especially for those of us living along the Wasatch Front. Is educating our children about these facts “demonizing fossil energy” and spreading propaganda or is it simply calling a spade a spade?

The state should not be backing an “Earth Day” contest that celebrates fossil fuels while completely ignoring the adverse effects that their extraction and use can have on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the public lands we love to visit, and the wildlife and other organisms with whom we share the world. Earth Day should not be exploited to celebrate our dependence on fossil fuels without including the truth about their incontrovertible downsides, including the fact that oil and gas will not last forever.

I live in Salt Lake City, and we’ve just made it through one of the worst winters on record for air quality, rivaled only by Beijing, China. It seems cynical that the state would celebrate spring’s arrival by pushing a contest on Earth Day that basically encourages our kids to do free public relations work for the petroleum industry.

This Earth Day, my friend’s daughter might look at her poster and think: “Thank goodness we have fossil fuels! Without them we wouldn’t have electricity!” She might never consider that there are other sources of electricity or notice the failure to include solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative forms of energy. These alternatives are the kinds of things we should explore on Earth Day. In fact, they represent the future we must head toward.

The more polluting varieties of energy sources get plenty of time in the spotlight the other 364 days of the year; not just due to their huge ad budgets, but also to devastating events such as pipeline spills and oil field fires. Let’s not confuse our children about the point of Earth Day: It was founded decades ago to educate people about the need to protect our planet’s environment.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News.

{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • katiesue

    I live in SLC but I’m glad I don’t have kids in school here. Sheesh! Seriously? I hope this was optional and that most teachers opted out.

  • KatieSue

    …also, I hope this backfires on them. Making the kids aware of how dependant we are to these types of fuels in little areas and that even if we swap obvious uses there are hundreds of other ways we depend on them that we can start addressing. Just looking at the poster..crayons, toys, growing our food. Now that they’re aware how serious the problem is they can think of even more ways to eliminate our use of them beyond gas in our cars and heating bills. Next up, organic crayons.

  • Alexander

    I would like to see someone make a poster that explain’s all the negative aspects of fossil fuels, for example: Where would we be without oil, gas, & mining? We would have less pollution, less global warming, less environmental damage, less health hazards, better air, etc. We would also have most if not all of the things that use fossil fuels because of development into other materials. Something like that. Make it meet all the other criteria, and it would be a great way to beat them at their own game.

  • Jordan

    Stupid people are the problem, and Colby, I hope you’re not one of them. Some people are saying, “Let’s get rid of mining.” How about I spark a news article with this headline: “Utah citizen dares to suggest: Get rid of all mining.” No more metal. Come on, even the Amish would think that is stupid. But we both know that wouldn’t get the attention your article is getting.

    I don’t have a problem with renewable energy and reducing pollution, I have a problem with uneducated people making decisions about my tax money and the future of the country my children will live in. Are you helping to develop non-polluting, renewable energy that will meet the demands our society has for standards of living? Or are you just shouting at the smart people to do it for you. Come on, you can complain or you can do something. As an electrical engineer I have done a lot of research into renewable energy and it’s not as simple as just replacing coal with solar panels and wind generators and changing out gas for electric cars. Why don’t we try to solve this problem right now.

    Current solar panel efficiency is 10-13 Watts per square foot. That means you need 130 square feet of solar panels for the average house which uses 1.7kW at any time, right? Not quite, you have to also think about the fact that each panel needs an inverter to go from DC to AC which is not 100% efficient (actually it can be about 50%-90% depending on how much power you’re using), and that sun doesn’t shine at night (“oh yeah I forgot about that”) in fact, you only get about 5 hours of peak sunlight shining towards your solar panel during the day. So in order to get enough power from your solar panels to get you off the grid you need over 700 square feet of solar panels. 125 watt panels go for $419 so $26,819 for the panels, plus inverters, batteries, cables, that would put you well above $30,000 to get your home off the grid and up and running. Then you have to maintain that equipment. Don’t believe me? Try the math yourself: http://www.wholesalesolar.com/StartHere/OFFGRID/OFFGRIDCalculator.html

    Electric cars need electricity to charge, so how are you going to do that without using coal and natural gas plants that generate the electricity for the grid? Solar panels? An average electric car uses 1.5kW/hour. We don’t have to go through these numbers again, right? When will people charge their cars? At night? During work? Think about the demand that puts on the grid, we’d have to burn more coal and natural gas to meet that demand, so do you want to trade gasoline pollution for more coal pollution? Yay! The stupid people want to! http://auto.howstuffworks.com/electric-car5.htm

    There is research going on right now about increasing solar panel efficiency, how to handle the demands on the grid for electric car charging, how to increase the efficiency and usage of wind turbines, how to extract energy from natural earth movements such as tides, geothermals, and other renewable sources. Right now, they cannot meet the demand we are putting on the electric power system.

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