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Lawmakers: Teach Utah kids petro literacy

Published November 18, 2010 10:06 am

Schools • Committee advances bill to teach benefits of mineral industries.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's schoolchildren get plenty of environmentally themed messages but never learn how important mining and petroleum drilling are to their lives, a committee of state lawmakers decided Wednesday.

The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee recommended a bill that would tap surpluses in a state oil, gas and mining reclamation fund to develop a curriculum for teaching the virtues of mineral industries.

An anti-pollution activist decried the measure as a "horrible mistake," while at least one onlooker at the Capitol suggested to lawmakers the bill was biased against informing kids of pollution-related health issues.

Still, the committee recommended it unanimously.

Few elementary school-age children can say how important oil, gas and coal are to Utah's economy or for paying for their educations, said Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, sponsor of the proposed Mineral and Petroleum Literacy Act.

"Most of them," he said, "don't know their iPods, their toothbrushes, their homes and their roads are all products of this kind of natural resource development."

Draxler showed a segment of an educational film produced by Oklahoma officials about directional drilling practices meant to protect sensitive surface or groundwater areas.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, recommended sending the video to environmental groups that deal in "misinformation." He dismissed growing concerns about the chemical drilling injection known as "fracking" for natural-gas production, which has drawn national attention over groundwater-contamination complaints in Pennsylvania.

Draxler said the full Oklahoma video does address fracking and Utah students should learn that the practice is safe.

"It's just a public perception problem," he said.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining supports the educational effort, which would draw from the Oil and Gas Conservation Account. That fund comes from industry taxes that rise and fall with mineral prices, and state law limits its annual surplus to $750,000. It's unclear how much the education effort would cost — a separate allocation bill would set the amount — though it would be drawn from any surplus collected beyond the cap.

Division policy coordinator Steve Schneider doubts most Utahns understand that coal and petroleum operations disturb less than two-tenths of 1 percent of Utah's surface area — and argued an education program could help change that.

Terry Marasco, of the Utah Clean Air Alliance, urged caution and balance to legislators. Mining may disturb small slivers of land, he said, but one mining operation — Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper — is the largest emitter of federally regulated air pollutants in Salt Lake County.

That doesn't mean mining or drilling should stop, he said, but that there's another side to the story he fears students would miss.

"My concern about this [bill's] approach," he said, "is it looks like a lack of balance."

Draxler said his idea is to add balance to an education system that already emphasizes conservation and recycling.

Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said Utahns suffer from ozone and particulates emitted in energy production and that any balanced curriculum should note that.

Teachers, not legislators, should decide what's appropriate, he said in an interview. "To have one side of the issue be allowed to basically do their own cheerleading in front of all the kids of the state is a horrible mistake."

Moench added he is especially dismayed that industry regulators at the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining back the proposal.

"That seems to be entirely out of their purview," he said. "That adds another layer of impropriety."

bloomis@sltrib.com

More on the Web

O To read the draft bill, go to http://tinyurl.com/2vaoywp, click under "related materials" from the Nov. 17 meeting, and then click on "Mineral and Petroleum Literacy."