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Endorsed by Utah, Earth Day poster contest sparks outrage

Published March 28, 2013 11:05 am

Poster competition asks kids to tout the benefits of fossil fuels.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A state-endorsed Earth Day poster contest rewards students for singing the praises of mined resources, sparking criticisms from parents and an administrator who see a disconnect between the event and the conservation values associated with the annual observance.

"Where Would WE Be Without Oil, Gas, & Mining?" is the theme of this and last year's contests, inviting all Utah elementary schools and their students to craft 11-by-17-inch posters describing the benefits of coal, oil and natural gas, but not the impacts associated with burning them.

"I'm disgusted that the State is backing propaganda like this in our schools. Especially after a winter filled with some of the worst air quality we've ever seen? It makes me sick," Colby Poulson, father of a kindergartner at Eagle Bay Elementary in Farmington, wrote in a letter to the editor that ran in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Davis School District did not sanction this contest, which appears to directly compete with its own recycling-themed "Davis Thinks Green" Earth Day poster competition.

"Had it come across my desk I would have questioned it, especially in connection with Earth Day. We are trying to promote saving the Earth, not using up our natural resources," said Rita Stevenson, the science curriculum director for the district's 59 elementary schools.

The Division of Oil, Gas & Mining's abandoned-mines program administers the statewide contest, which has nothing to do with the state's new "mineral and petroleum literacy" program, according to division spokesman Jim Springer. It is funded by donations, with a local chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers serving as lead sponsor.

According to contest rules, the posters should illustrate how mineral resources support our quality of life.

"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," the rules state. Springer did not know the number of participating schools this year, but suspects there are fewer than last year, when 26 schools submitted 79 entries.

"The poster contest is a part of the division's public education mission to help people understand that our modern society doesn't exist without petroleum and mineral extraction," Springer wrote in an e-mail response to a Tribunequery. "Even alternative forms of energy only become usable because of mining and petroleum. Solar panels, windmills, electric cars … whatever … require mined minerals and petroleum for their production. Some people may not like that message but it's a simple truth."

But, critics say, Earth Day is a time to reflect on larger truths, such as climate change, air pollution and resource depletion.

"The point should be learning ways to avoid using fossil fuels," said Richard Kanner, a University of Utah pulmonologist and an activist with Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment. "This is giving kids the wrong message. It's training them to grow up loving oil and coal."

Earth Day, observed every April 22, was established in 1970 as a global gesture of support for environmental protection.

"Do we really need to be celebrating fossil fuels on Earth Day and sweeping under the rug the negative consequence to our environment?" Poulson asked. "The industry gets plenty of support and recognition on the other 364 days of the year."

Poulson's child did not submit a poster, but a schoolmate did. That child's poster described how mined hydrocarbons make fun things such as Disneyland possible, but the air would be cleaner and there would be more wildlife if we didn't use as much, according to the child's father, who asked to not be named to protect his child's privacy. The girl was distraught to later read the contest's instructions closely and discover her poster's balanced message would likely lose.

"It was surprising how specific the rules were. It was leading the children to think a certain way," the father said. "It comes across as, 'Let's indoctrinate your children on the benefits of these resources and activities.' "

The school district's Stevenson had no idea about the contest when Poulson and TheTribune first contacted her. She subsequently discovered that a DOGM staffer had left fliers for the contest at Eagle Bay after presenting on an unrelated science topic to fourth-graders. Stevenson believes a teacher then posted the fliers around school and other teachers ran with it.

Poulson sent letters to his legislative representatives, asking for an explanation of why the state enlists school kids in the creation of pro-industry messages for Earth Day.

"It is not propaganda," responded Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, a retired Questar engineer. "The school curriculum is already heavy with the renewable side of the energy discussion, which often demonizes fossil energy. That's propaganda."

bmaffly@sltrib.com