An educational program funded by Ohio’s oil and gas industry and sponsored by Radio Disney has environmental activists — and some parents — up in arms over what they say is a hijacking of public education by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) interests, in a state sitting on billions of dollars’ worth of gas-rich shale.
The program, called Rocking in Ohio, went on a 26-stop tour of elementary schools and science centers across the state last month. It involves interactive demonstrations of how oil and gas pipelines work, and is led by three staffers from Radio Disney’s Cleveland branch. It is entirely funded by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP), which gets its money from oil and gas companies.
Radio Disney, a nationwide network of radio stations aimed at kids, has said it will take the tour to other states if it deems the program successful. The company could not be reached for comment in time for the publication of this story.
Environmental activists and parents have called the program “propaganda” for promoting a controversial industry. Fracking — a process in which thousands of gallons of water and chemicals are injected into deep wells in order to break up rocks that contain natural gas or oil — has been a boon to Ohio’s economy but has caused myriad environmental issues in the state.
Some who are concerned over the promotional program have taken to the Internet to vent their outrage, creating online petitions and social media campaigns urging Disney to back out of its relationship with the oil and gas group. The most popular petition currently has more than 75,000 signatures.
In each of the 26 demonstrations, a Radio Disney DJ named Taylor Bell directed teams of kids as they raced to build pipelines out of plastic straws. The first team to get three pingpong balls through the “pipelines” won the game. The kids were cheered on by Radio Disney employees and teachers as pop music played in the background.
"Our country cannot survive without oil and gas,” OOGEEP’s Ron Grosjean told the Wooster, Ohio, Daily Record. “Kids are the best way (to spread the message). They retain (the information); they remember it."
According to several local media reports, the demonstrations seemed to be a hit. One said kids became “loud, noisy and raucous” in support of their teams.
Environmentalists are less enthusiastic.
“I don’t think it’s doing the children or the state of Ohio any good,” said Robert Shields, chair of the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter. “Kids’ ability to reason is not yet quite established, so it feels to me that they’re getting some kind of propaganda.”
OOGEEP pointed out in local media that the word “fracking” is never used during the demonstrations.
This is far from the first education program started by OOGEEP, which was founded in 1998 and has reached 100,000 students with its outreach initiatives, according to the organization’s website.
But it seems teaming up with a well-known national company like Disney crossed a line for some and created a firestorm.
"It's troubling in the first place that they're going into elementary schools, and it's even more troubling that Disney is getting involved," said Alison Auciello, an organizer with Food and Water Watch in Ohio. "They're not giving a balanced education on (oil and gas). Public schools should also be inviting anti-fracking people into schools. That doesn't seem to be happening at all."
Fracking has become more controversial as it has expanded in Ohio over the past few years. A recent investigation by The Associated Press found that drinking water in the state may have been contaminated by gas drilling. Also, a series of earthquakes in the city of Youngstown was linked to fracking in August.
But detractors have not been able to stop the industry from quickly gaining ground in the state. The most recent figures from Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources show that shale drilling led to twice as much oil and gas production in the third quarter of 2013 as in the same quarter of the year before.
Updated Jan. 9, 2014: Disney emailed a statement to Al Jazeera, saying the company has pulled out of the remaining installments of the Rocking Ohio tour.
"The sole intent of the collaboration between Radio Disney and the nonprofit Rocking in Ohio educational initiative was to foster kids' interest in science and technology. Having been inadvertently drawn into a debate that has no connection with this goal, Radio Disney has decided to withdraw from the few remaining installments of the program," the statement read.