A nonprofit backed by the fossil fuel industry has wormed its way into Illinois public schools to convince students to pursue careers in oil and gas.

Emissions rise from the Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in Roxana, Illinois, on April 24, 2017. (Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On a balmy day in December, in Oblong, Illinois, I sat on a folding chair in a small, windowless room and watched a ’90s VHS tape about a high school student who couldn’t live without her petroleum products.

The tape, kept at the Illinois Oil Field Museum, is called Fuel-Less: You Can’t Be Cool Without Fuel. It’s a loose spoof on the movie Clueless: a ditsy high schooler magically loses access to her most prized possessions (her clothing and makeup, of course), and has to wear a potato sack until she understands and appreciates the importance of petroleum in her daily life. Or, as she puts it in the video, “Oil is, like, neat!”

The 1996 video, produced by oil and gas lobbyists, might seem like a throwback to a bygone era. But in fact, an Illinois nonprofit run by fossil fuel interests is still facilitating public education campaigns — involving in-school presentations, classroom materials, teacher workshops, and even the museum theater where I watched this video — to ensure the next generation learns that oil is, like, neat.

The Illinois effort fits into a well-documented national landscape of fossil fuel industry–funded marketing that, disguised as education, has long wormed its way into the nation’s schools. But in Illinois, a state that’s already engaged in an aggressive push away from fossil fuels, experts say the future jobs promised by this program aren’t likely to exist.

“It just seems like [the effort is] getting in there and indoctrinating students to support the industry,” said Sally Burgess, lead organizing representative for the environmental organization Sierra Club in southern Illinois.

The nonprofit is called the Illinois Petroleum Resources Board (IPRB); it’s an organization comprised of twelve representatives from the oil and gas industry. A self-proclaimed “industry-funded education and outreach program,” the IPRB was founded in 1998 through the bipartisan Illinois Petroleum Education and Marketing Act in order to “demonstrate to the general public the importance of the Illinois oil and gas exploration and production industry.”

The organization, which has largely flown under the radar for the past twenty-five years, has some environmentally related responsibilities — it orchestrates the restoration and remediation of some oil fields and old battery sites in the state. But it mostly focuses on messaging promoting a future of fossil fuel jobs.

The IPRB provides science curriculum and professional development workshops to teachers in Illinois and conducts “Petro Pros” presentations in elementary, middle, and high schools to discuss the benefits of pursuing careers in oil and gas. It presents in math and science classes, at assemblies, and even at career days, mostly “downstate” in southern Illinois, where the oil and gas industry is most active.

As of last November, the IPRB reported that it had presented to seventeen different public school districts in 2023 alone, and from 2010 to 2023, it says 781 teachers attended its summer professional development conference for math and science educators.

Given the need to transition away from fossil fuels, experts in Illinois and beyond have raised concerns about the IPRB’s role in schools, and its potential for misleading students.

“Children don’t have a good understanding of the economic incentives that the presenters have,” said Oakley Shelton-Thomas, senior researcher at the environmental group Food & Water Watch, about the IPRB. “They see them as authority figures, and they don’t necessarily have the full context . . . that these are actually profit-motivated entities.”

Part of the IPRB’s purpose, as outlined in the 1998 statute that founded it, is “to coordinate a program designed to demonstrate to the general public the importance of the Illinois oil and gas exploration and production industry.” After multiple extensions, most recently in 2017, the act is now scheduled for repeal in 2028.

Though the IPRB was founded by state statute, it is not a public body — it operates as an independent nonprofit without taxpayer funding. The IPRB’s activities are financed by a levy on the state’s oil and gas industry revenues.

In 2013, Illinois made national headlines for ending a taxpayer-funded pro-coal propaganda education program after grassroots opposition. But the IPRB, an organization with a similar mission, has continued to operate with surprisingly little attention.

The IPRB’s headquarters are in a small brick building in an otherwise empty lot on a stretch of highway in rural Jefferson County in southern Illinois. An American flag flies in the yard, close to a miniature model of an oil well. A truck emblazoned with an old, peeling decal with a drawing of a dinosaur that reads “Illinois Crude Oil & Natural Gas, a free traveling field trip for your school or event,” sits in the parking lot. The building is shared by the IPRB and the Illinois Oil and Gas Association, another industry advocacy group.

Jayette Bolinski, the communications director at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources — which receives a report from the IPRB each fiscal year and works with the board on environmental remediation efforts — first told the Lever she wasn’t familiar with the organization. Later, she found the IPRB’s reports and its agreements with the department on the restoration of abandoned battery tank sites.

Dan Brennan, director of the natural resources department’s Office of Oil and Gas Resource Management, said he has occasional communication with the IPRB’s executive director. Previously, Brennan said, the department had an agreement that IPRB would coordinate the restoration of abandoned tank battery sites, but Brennan said the agreement is now expired and the state is using federal dollars to address these sites.

A representative at the Illinois State Board of Education had also never heard of the IPRB — she later confirmed that the board has no formal connection to the IPRB and that it is not an approved professional development provider.

Even so, some of the state’s regional education offices have promoted IPRB teacher workshops, and some teachers have received professional development credits for the workshops, via Board of Education–approved providers. Many of the people I spoke with — including sources deeply embedded in advocacy against the fossil fuel industry downstate — had never heard of the IPRB, though several were alarmed once they saw the organization’s website.

And yet, the organization’s marketing materials continue to crop up throughout the state. Just a few hours before I spoke with him, Warren Lavey, a lawyer and adjunct professor of environmental law at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, saw an advertisement from the IPRB while watching a local news station. In the commercial, a nurse spoke about the many petroleum products essential to her work as a medical professional, like masks, gowns, and surgical tools — concluding that petroleum is necessary for public health.

“It’s accurate that those products exist and they’re being used,” Lavey said of the ad. “[But] it’s inaccurate in giving the impression that there’s a need for increased extraction of oil and gas in order to support the health care industry.”

A recurring narrative in IPRB’s materials — similar to the Fuel-Less video — is that there would be no way to operate in the modern world after a fossil fuel phase out, given how much of daily life relies on petroleum. Shelton-Thomas at Food & Water Watch pointed out that the common, misleading framing misses the point of the green transition.

“If you were to take the oil and gas industry at their word, if we stopped producing oil and gas, we would be back to the dark age and there’d be nothing that replaced it, but no one’s asking for that,” said Shelton-Thomas. “What people want is that there’s a transition to renewable energy . . . [and] there’s a ton of jobs there, and those jobs have the potential for being just as good if not better than existing oil and gas jobs.”

Several schools declined the Lever’s requests to observe a Petro Pros presentation in person. The IPRB, as well as its executive director, Seth Whitehead, chairperson, Stephanie Storckman, classroom presenters, and other members did not respond to multiple requests to discuss their organization and materials directly.

In the past year, climate disinformation has taken a stronger hold on public education.

In the past year, climate disinformation has taken a stronger hold on public education: in Texas, the fossil fuel industry is pushing to take climate change out of textbooks, and in Florida, the Department of Education approved the use of inflammatory climate disinformation propaganda from conservative education-focused nonprofit Prager University Foundation.

The fossil fuel industry has been targeting the nation’s classrooms for years. In 1998, a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest fossil fuel lobbying organization, wrote that “informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts to impose Kyoto [Protocol]–like measures in the future.”

When the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), a community and advocacy group for science teachers, distributed the American Petroleum Institute’s Fuel-Less video in the early 2000s, they simultaneously refused to distribute Al Gore’s seminal climate change documentaryAn Inconvenient Truth, according to a 2006 op-ed by the documentary’s producer, Laurie David. The NSTA now emphasizes teaching climate science and warns against misinformation, but ExxonMobil and Shell are still among the organization’s corporate partners.

In recent years, the climate skepticism movement has shifted from outright denial toward the “it’s not that bad’’ approach: claiming the risk of climate change is overhyped and advocating for continued investment in fossil fuels.

In keeping with this shift, the IPRB doesn’t appear to deny climate change — they mostly seem to avoid mentioning it at all. Instead, the group focuses on economic arguments about the oil and gas industry, which they claim will be a good source of jobs for decades to come, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Illinois isn’t the only state that boasts such an organization. Several other states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas, have similar petroleum-focused energy boards with educational missions. The IPRB uses some materials directly from the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, a peer organization with an extensive presence that has pedaled similar climate denialist propaganda to children. Both the Illinois and Oklahoma boards utilize the Petro Pros speaker series, which involves presenters from the oil and gas industry discussing their jobs and is geared toward encouraging students to pursue careers in the fossil fuel industry.

Experts say that advertising to students that oil and gas jobs will be around for decades to come is a false promise — especially in Illinois, which has been lauded as a leader in the Midwest for the clean energy transition.

“Even if we set aside any considerations of the climate crisis which cries out for the speediest elimination of fossil fuels that is humanly possible, oil jobs in Illinois are career dead ends,” wrote William Rau, an emeritus Illinois State University sociology professor, in an email to the Lever.

In its online materials and Petro Pros presentations, the IPRB advertises that the oil and gas industry is responsible for more than 14,000 jobs in Illinois and more than ten million jobs nationwide — though they note that these numbers include both direct jobs and so-called “multipliers,” additional jobs that they claim are spawned by the fossil fuel industry. In a presentation from 2022, the IPRB advertised 4,000 direct oil and gas jobs in Illinois, and 11.3 million across the country.

Food & Water Watch, however, counted 504,000 oil and gas industry jobs nationally in 2021, about 0.35 percent of the country’s jobs. Using 2022 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Food & Water Watch tallied just under 5,900 oil and gas industry jobs in Illinois, including pipeline-related jobs that aren’t necessarily directly in oil and gas.

Shelton-Thomas at Food & Water Watch pointed out that the IPRB’s figures, some taken from the American Petroleum Institute, include jobs that are very loosely connected with the energy industry — including, for example, gas station jobs primarily driven by convenience store sales. Food & Water Watch released a report in 2022 investigating the lobbying group’s numbers and found methodological inconsistencies.

“If you apply it to every industry, you would get a total number of jobs that far exceeds the national number of jobs in the United States,” Shelton-Thomas said of the “multiplier” strategy. “I think that’s pretty misleading.”

Another one of the IPRB’s recurring claims is that oil and gas still dominates the energy field, so it can’t go away. Shelton-Thomas said that’s also a misplaced conclusion.

“This is not a natural force, it’s a political decision,” he said. “The technology exists to transition to 100 percent renewable energy . . . but you have to take political action otherwise it won’t happen, and that’s where these organizations are fighting as much as they can, and treating it like a natural force is sort of obscuring the issue.”

Rau, the sociology professor, puts it more simply: “A young kid would have to [be] nuts to seek a career in oil.”

MaryAnn Stallings, a longtime high school science teacher in Paris, Illinois — a small 8,000-person city near the Indiana border — attended two of IPRB’s professional development workshops in 2013.

At the time, fracking was a central topic of conversation in Illinois, and Stallings said she felt the need to overhaul her environmental science curriculum to include more critical discussion of energy production.

As Stallings expected, the math and science curriculum workshops, which, like other IPRB programming were advertised through regional offices of education, were both blatantly pro-oil. She said in addition to programming that spoke positively of the industry, the teachers were taken to nearby oil extraction sites.

Stallings wasn’t convinced by the IPRB’s promises of well-paying oil jobs for her students in decades to come.

“Obviously, there’s only so much petroleum,” she said. “At some point, if you’re not making changes, all of those jobs are gonna be gone.”

The curriculum documents Stallings received from the workshops cover fossil fuel related topics not necessarily central to high school science, like crude oil extraction, oil refining, and bioremediation of petroleum, blended with scientific concepts like hydrocarbons, viscosity, and fluid movement.

In one lesson plan provided to attendees, teachers are advised to show students a video on the oil and gas drilling process (and how petroleum is everywhere), then have students make a list of twenty jobs in oil and gas, like drilling engineer, geologist, and well logger.

Stallings earned seven hours of professional development credit from the one-day IPRB workshop she attended in 2013, approved by the Illinois State Board of Education. IPRB also advertises that attendees can receive graduate course credits through Illinois State University.

But more importantly, workshop attendance came with a plastic tub loaded with all the necessary materials to do hands-on experiments detailed in the curriculum; one of the IPRB’s advertisements for the workshop said the kit has a value of $500. This was a big deal for Stallings, who said her public school district is strapped for cash.

“We, essentially, don’t really have any money,” Stallings said.

It’s the same tactic that other petroleum resource boards use to draw teachers in, said Oklahoma science teacher and National Center for Science Education ambassador Melissa Lau. Lau advocates against using such materials, but said she understands that science kits are an incentive for teachers to attend the conferences and get lectured about oil and gas.

“It’s a funding issue that is being solved, and districts are really cool with you finding ways for them to do stuff for zero dollars,” Lau said. “Science is expensive.”

Lau said that a lot of teachers, like Stallings, go into these conferences with an understanding that the content will be biased.

“I’m fairly heartened that most of the people I talk to that go to the OERB are like, ‘I’m just here for a kit,’” Lau said.

Stallings takes pieces of IPRB’s curriculum but mostly does her own thing, teaching about climate change and renewable energy. But she worries that some of the teachers attending the conferences may not have the knowledge or resources to read between the lines of the IPRB’s biased materials.

“I think that it’s very possible that we have people in positions that are not knowledgeable enough to know that everything that they see, or read, or have as a resource is not, you know, a transparent thing,” she said.

Stallings is not alone in her professional concern about IPRB’s materials. Jeff Grant, a science teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, an ambassador for the National Center for Science Education, and a regional director for the Illinois Science Teaching Association, expressed distrust of the organization’s work.

“It just seems to me personally nefarious,” Grant said. “They’re trying to kind of skirt around the idea that climate is changing and that petroleum [is] a part of that.”

At the IPRB’s 2023 Summer Program for math and science teachers, the organization continued to promote the fossil fuel industry.

In a near ninety-minute keynote presentation punctuated with jokes and light laughter from the crowd, long-time petroleum industry professional Scott Tinker warned against the elimination of fossil fuels. Though he acknowledged human contributions to recent climate change, Tinker remarked that given cyclical climate changes over the last five hundred million years, the past fifty aren’t too “out of sync.” (He neglected to note that much of that history was uninhabitable for life as we know it, and that today’s warming is unprecedented in the last ten thousand years.)

Tinker told the Lever that he used this timeline to contextualize today’s temperatures for educators.

“I think reasonable people will understand that humans are accelerating the warming [and] will also understand that another degree or two, at least for those of us who have some energy, is not an existential threat,” he said.

I showed up to the Illinois Oil Field Museum, where I watched the propaganda film Fuel-Less, unannounced — the museum is usually only open by appointment this time of year — and John Larrabee paused his baseball game and drove his pickup truck into town to give me a tour. Larrabee, who turned eighty-five in December, is president of the museum board and a former president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Association; he now curates the museum.

Larrabee speaks softly and slowly, with a bit of a drawl, and walks with a slight limp. Taking his tour, it’s clear that many of the museum’s contents are part of his own personal history. As we walked through a hallway, he showed me a black-and-white photograph of himself among a group of young men, working on an oil rig at nineteen years old. A few minutes later, he pointed to a photograph of his father and another of his uncle.

In southern Illinois, it’s a hard case to make that it’s urgent to move away from fossil fuels; there is a lot of tradition in the fossil industry.

Larrabee got his first job on a rig at eighteen years old, right out of high school — it derailed his original plan to join the Marines — and he’s been in the industry ever since. It helped him build a good life, he said, and he doesn’t see the oil industry going away anytime soon.

Several towns near Oblong are still actively producing oil. Driving through Crawford County means a near-continuous passing of active oil fields with well pumps moving slowly against the flat horizon. Still, Larrabee noted there’s been a steep decline in production, as wells produce less oil.

Southern Illinois, home to the Illinois basin, is where the majority of in-state oil and gas wells reside. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the majority of Illinois’s wells are stripper wells, or wells nearing the end of their life cycle, producing 1.5 barrels per day.

With the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act of 2021, Illinois announced a goal to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The state aims to implement statewide workforce training for jobs in climate and renewable industries and push electric vehicle adoption across the state — but progress on implementation has been slow.

Sierra Club’s Burgess said there is an attachment to the oil industry downstate. It’s been a steady employer for some communities for many years.

“In southern Illinois, it’s a hard case to make that it’s urgent to move away from fossil fuels,”  she said. “There is a lot of tradition in the fossil industry.”

Clean energy advocates across the state emphasized that the transition needs to focus on broad, equitable jobs access. John Delurey, Midwest deputy program director for clean energy nonprofit Vote Solarsaid that organizations like the IPRB can make clean energy progress more difficult by catering to justifiable fears in communities at risk of economic loss.

“We’d really like to see places like downstate Illinois preparing to future-proof a little bit,” Delurey said. “And that’s hard to do when everyone believes what this IPRB is suggesting, that petrochemicals are our past, present, and future.”

“I would like to find ways of working with students to show that there might be a slightly different future ahead,” he added. “It’s an exciting future, and it’s best to prepare for it.”

Reporting for this story was made possible through a climate disinformation media fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Washington, DC. You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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