Bonneville Environmental Foundation Cancels Teacher Event After Backlash

Teacher Suzanna Kassouf gives a speech at the May 2022 Student Climate Strike outside NW Natural's Portland Headquarters.

The all-day paid teacher workshop at the natural gas company’s Portland headquarters was cancelled backlash and a looming protest.

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The Bonneville Environmental Foundation cancelled a paid teacher-training event at NW Natural’s Portland headquarters whose curriculum regarding biogas and hydrogen, following a call to protest from students, teachers, and climate advocates. The event was scheduled to take place Saturday, but was canceled the day before.

A coalition aligned against the event — which included the Sierra Club, 350 Eugene, Sunrise PDX and the NAACP — put out a statement ahead of the workshop discouraging teachers and other educational professionals from attending.

The announcement called the training workshop a “thinly veiled attempt by NW Natural to turn educators into vehicles for propaganda targeted toward school children.”

The cancellation comes on the heels of mounting criticism of the gas company alleging it has spread misinformation about the environmental, economic, and health impacts of natural gas, as cities like Eugene and Milwaukie have taken steps towardoutlawing new natural gas installations in residential and city-funded building projects.

In August, a coalition of environmental groups and activists petitioned the Oregon Department of Justice to investigate NW Natural over its response to the City of Eugene’s electrification effort, saying the utility has spread false information about its product.

Among the controversies was the utility’s efforts to distribute child-friendly workbooks to which depicting natural gas alongside cookies, pizza, and cartoon characters. 

NW Natural began funding the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s “Clean Energy. Bright Futures” program on biogas and hydrogen in 2020.

In an email to teachers attending the event obtained by Willamette Week, Parker Mullins, a program director at the foundation, said the topics being protested were “entirely unrelated to the training and our important work together with educators,” and that the event was cancelled due to safety concerns.

David Roy, senior director of communications for NW Natural, told Oregon Business over email that the decision to cancel the event came from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and disputed the idea that the natural gas company was using the event to influence teachers or their curriculum.

“We decided to fund the program specifically because it’s educator-driven,” writes Roy. “We do not influence how the educators teach the information. We answer questions from an engineering and science perspective when called upon as do other industry experts, including renewable developers.”

Roy also confirmed that participating teachers that all teachers who participate in the Clean Energy Bright Futures program receive a stipend from Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and that the company was happy to fund this program and its work. The stipend is $200, plus a mileage reimbursement for those who live more than 50 miles away, according to prior reporting, which BEF has subsequently confirmed. 

Teacher Suzanna Kassouf characterized the training and stipend as a form of bribery.

“Every year teachers have more and more to do, they get more and more stressed out, and it’s harder and harder to create thoughtful curriculum. Private corporations come in and say they want to help, and they provide these free materials so you can teach about things the way that they want you to teach about them,” says Kassouf, a social studies teacher at Grant High School and former organizer for environmental nonprofit Sunrise PDX. “Fossil fuel companies have been doing this for decades.”

Oregon Business was not initially able to reach BEF for comment. Following the initial publication of this story, BEF chief of staff Hilary Shohoney sent a statement to OB that contained the following text: “Teachers are not paid to attend our workshops. There are fundamental barriers for educators to participate in professional development, and one of the ways to overcome some of these barriers is to provide a stipend that values teachers’ time and commitment. For all of our workshops, Teachers receive a stipend of $200 plus mileage reimbursement for those coming from over 50 miles to help overcome barriers to participation. Most school districts that we work with will not share or promote teacher trainings when stipends are not included. Providing stipends for teachers’ time to participate in activities outside of their school day (and official job responsibilities) is considered a best practice for professional service providers.”

Kassouf says any curriculum which portrays natural gas as environmentally friendly contradicts the findings of last year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which recommended a full transition away from fossil fuels.

“They say we need to cut our fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 if we want to prevent the more drastic effects of climate change,” says Kassouf. “So any kind of like curriculum that saying that fossil fuels are going to be okay is nefarious.”

In her statement to OB, BEF chief of staff Hilary Shohoney criticized the “the lack of critical thought attributed to teachers by this article,” noting the curriculum was developed with teachers’ input. Further, Shohoney writes, “This particular workshop and project features work products produced by local educators. This work is currently under review for digital badging for high quality STEM education for use by educators nationally. The event will share the credible work of these educators with other teachers in a celebration of collaborative progress to advance high quality STEM lessons for students that focus on clean energy topics and solutions.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story bore the headline “NW Natural Cancels Teacher Event After Backlash.” The event in question was not organized or canceled by Northwest Natural and we have updated the headline to reflect that. The story has also been updated to more accurately reflect OB’s initial newsgathering efforts. Oregon Business regrets the errors. 

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