This Oil Company Teaches Kids About How Environmental Disasters Can Be Good for Tourism

Italian oil company Eni created an educational program that avoids addressing climate change in the Arctic and implies oil rigs and mining platforms can have a positive impact on the environment.

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Dec 10 2015, 5:30pm

There's a tendency for multinational energy corporations that are heavily invested in climate change to throw wads of cash at good causes. BP, for instance, has a longstanding deal with the Tate Galleries, so you can look at art instead of documentaries about their oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell, meanwhile, controversially sponsors a climate change exhibition at the London Science Museum (a deal that's soon to end), but they want creatives to make films about the subject that don't mention plans to drill in the arctic.

The folks down at Italian oil company Eni S.p.A, meanwhile, run an educational program that teaches children about science. It's called Eniscuola, or Eni schools. Materials are designed for use at home, as well as for teachers in the classroom. That sounds good, but unfortunately, as Greenpeace Energy Desk points out, the information they're giving is a little skewed.

Eni, Italy's largest energy company, claims the project's website receives 1.8 million hits annually, and has users in 15 countries worldwide.

Teaching kids about the planet sounds pretty noble for a company that has a rap sheet including an ongoing court case in Italy, in which prosecutors are investigating a $1.1 billion oil field deal in Nigeria, where it's alleged up to half of the money was spent on bribes.

Educational materials from Eni include pieces of work designed for teachers explain how manmade objects like oil rigs and mining platforms have a positive impact on the environment and wildlife, basically arguing that Eni's fossil fuel gluttony is basically doing us all a favor. A section translated from Italian as "life platform" ("vita in piattaforma") "aims to inform students on the richness of biodiversity in the Adriatic Sea, and the habitats that are created around the mining platforms."

Eni's info about what happened to the Haven oil tanker after the disaster killed five crew members

Another, titled "an artificial paradise under the sea," talks up how oil rigs can become homes to marine life and increase fish stocks, and describes how disasters like the sinking of the Haven tanker in 1991 can be "turned into an environmental and tourism opportunity." Every cloud, I suppose. Unfortunately they forget to mention how the disaster saw a million barrels of oil flow into the Mediterranean and five crew members die.

Claims of the ecological benefits of offshore oil rigs and mining platforms are controversial to say the least. Environmentalists point out that the benefits of leaving piles of industrial equipment in the sea to rot as are usually outstripped by the risks of accidents, and the disruption to marine life caused by dumping the man-made material in the great blue.

Professor John Shepherd, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, told VICE that Eni school's claims were "rather extravagant."

"There is plenty of evidence that man-made structures can provide extra habitat for sessile organisms [that grow on rocks] in areas where hard substrate is in short supply, and wrecks are very popular locations for sport divers and fishermen," he said. "However, hard evidence that this has any significant effect on the abundance of living things at the population level, i.e. other than very locally, is very hard to find. 'Rigs-to-reefs' is a popular policy in the Gulf of Mexico, both with rig operators and sport fishermen, because the 'reefs' attract fish to the area to make them easier to catch, but there's no evidence this does any good for fish populations as a whole."

According to an Eni spokesperson, the Haven tanker is referenced simply as an example of an artificial barrier, and special attention is paid to the "sensitivity of language" when discussing the disaster.

Since competitor Shell admitted defeat in their battle for arctic oil this year, pulling their Polar Pioneer rig out of the Chukchi Sea, Eni has made a big deal out of its own Arctic plans.

Days after Shell's announcement, the company told the Guardian its Goliat rig was ready for imminent production; despite the project being hampered by delays for years. Eni estimates that the Arctic outpost could be sitting on as much as 175 million barrels of oil, prime for the taking.

Eni schools tell students the Arctic is a "sensitive climate," which is "not spared the negative impact of some of man's activities," but fails to mention the impact of climate change, or even refer to it by name in a series of worksheets and information packs on the area.

Instead Eni schools material reads: "Recent studies actually showed the permafrost is getting thinner, probably because of the earth's general overheating." The impending climate change obliteration facing the planet sounds a whole lot less worrying when it's called "general overheating."

Asked why no reference to climate change is made in Eni school's Arctic section, a spokesperson said: "Eniscuola is not a website dedicated solely to climate change" but the project "promotes all scientific subjects, including climate change" and has a section dedicated to the subject online.

The spokesperson also pointed in the direction of the International Centre for Climate Governance, a Venice-based research body founded in part by the Eni Enrico Mattei Foundation.

Either way, these "educational" materials are at best irresponsibly selective in their coverage, and at worst are an attempt to birth a generation of toddlers who'll believe that mining is great for wildlife, and oil spills are nothing short of a miracle.

Follow Michael Segalov on Twitter.

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