Fast Times at California's Petroleum High

  • An oil tanker enters Taft; the derricks are part of the Oil Museum.

    Todd D'Addario
  • Students from the Taft Oil Technology Academy: (clockwise from top left) Keana Arnold, Karla Lopez, Mitchell Emberson and Jeremy Harmer.

    Todd D'Addario
 

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The push to teach the virtues of the petroleum industry is not limited to the West's high school academies. In November, Utah state Rep. Jack Draxler proposed legislation to mandate curriculum on "mineral and petroleum literacy" in the state's public schools. "Any elementary school child could tell you what recycling is," said Draxler. "However, not many elementary school children can probably tell you the role oil, gas and mining plays in our state's economy -- in terms of jobs, in terms of financing their education, and in terms of maintaining their standard of living."

Industry perspectives are "inherent" in academy curriculum, says Karen Shores, an educational consultant with the California Department of Education who works closely with the state's career partnership academies. Yet she says that she has not personally seen politics intrude in the classroom.

She points to a group of energy academies opened just this year by the utility Pacific Gas and Electric in Bakersfield, Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno and Berkeley. Although PG&E provides money, curriculum, staff development and other resources to its academies, Shores says, "They make it clear to students that they aren't preparing them to work for PG&E -- they're preparing students to explore careers in the industry."

But critics see corporate entanglement in schools as a fundamental debasement of the role of education. "They've corrupted the educational process, by making it an adjunct to a particular industry. The irony here, of course, is that this is the very industry that is undermining the very future of the kids purportedly being educated," says David Orr, professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College. "If this school were preparing (students) for careers in the tobacco industry, it might be more clear to people about what is going on."

Interested in seeing how students grapple with the complex and highly politicized problems facing the oil industry, last February I sat down with three seniors -- Nick Hickernell, Kasey Kaszycki and Blake Emberson. All three had participated in the previous year's junior debate. The topic: proposed oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kaszycki said his role was to find evidence presented by environmental groups against drilling. "The environmentalists always show you the pictures of the little section of ANWR where the animals live," said Kaszycki. "They don't show you the rest, which is just a barren wasteland."

The boys nodded when I asked if they'd learned about climate change but said they hadn't heard any speakers from outside the oil industry weigh in on the topic.

Hickernell then launched into a succinct, reductive dismantling of the issue. "Haven't they only been keeping records of temperature for the last 200 years? What about the thousands of years before records?

"If you look back at ancient history, you'll see that the Earth has warmed up," he said. "But we've also had, like, three Ice Ages. So it's warmed up at times, but it's gotten really cold again." (Months later, while rattling over rutted roads in a local oil field, I would hear this same line of reasoning from a key academy supporter, Fred Holmes, owner of Western Oil Corporation.)

With the specter of climate change effectively neutralized, I asked if the students had discussed the peaking of oil production in California, or the predictions that suggest that global oil production might be reaching a similar maximum on the verge of a long and irreversible slide. I asked the boys if they'd considered their job prospects in such a scenario. "There's a lot of talk about that. But I know we'll be using oil for a long time," said Emberson, now a freshman in petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

He pointed out that the big oil companies are also leading investors in alternative energy technology. "So even if the oil were to run out, those companies wouldn't go out of business."

"There's like 500 times the amount of oil we've already burned still in the ground," interjected Hickernell.

"We aren't going to run out anytime soon," Emberson said confidently.

On Saturday, I attended the Oildorado parade. The event began with gunfire, as men dressed as Old West outlaws and sheriffs shot it out in the street with antique revolvers. A motley procession of vehicles followed: ancient fire engines, tiny motorized scooters, massive oil tankers, muddy water tenders. "God's little gushers," read one handwritten sign affixed to a pickup. "Pumping for crippled children," read another banner on a float decked with a pump jack the size of a pony and a half-dozen Shriners in fezzes. Another flatbed featured two boys dressed as oil-smeared roughnecks who posed in front of a derrick gushing silver tassel.

About an hour into the parade, the Oil Academy float finally emerged on Center Street, towed behind a black Ford pickup and decked with six-foot wooden derricks. The students -- dressed in black Oil Academy polo shirts and red Halliburton hardhats -- sat atop the float. Some smiled and waved enthusiastically. Others hunched over cellphones with their feet dangling, partly obscuring a banner draped along the float's side that read, "These are the best of times..." The float glided past the crowds assembled in front of the boarded-up Wells Fargo Bank, the abandoned Wilson's Hardware, the empty storefronts and vacant lots. At the parade's end point, the float turned onto a side road -- its wooden derricks wobbling just slightly -- and disappeared from view.

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