Color me fracked: Energy industry produces coloring book to make case for gas drilling to kids


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When the energy industry publishes a coloring book, there is no crayon needed to see the shades of gray.

Exhibit A: "Talisman Terry's Energy Adventure," a handout for children published by Talisman Energy that explains the natural gas industry with the help of a "friendly Fracosaurus" dinosaur named Terry.

Everyone smiles in Terry's world. Mom smiles, Dad smiles, the worker smiles, the dog smiles, the cat smiles, the deer smiles, the fish smiles, the sun smiles, the moon smiles, the flower smiles, the rock smiles. Even the helium balloon -- used to demonstrate how "natural gas is lighter than air" -- smiles.

The coloring book's overt message -- drilling is smart, safe and American -- is delivered in kid-friendly fashion, glossing over the environmental and economic controversies that have surrounded drillers tapping the Marcellus Shale rock formation for lucrative pockets of gas.

And like other early education efforts by the energy industry, the coloring book is called harmless fun by the industry and dishonest propaganda by critics.

The debate over such materials is expected to hit closer to home in the coming months as a new industry begins introducing itself to Western Pennsylvania's littlest citizens.

Talisman Terry was developed at Talisman Energy's Calgary headquarters and has been distributed at community picnics in northeastern Pennsylvania counties. It's available free as a PDF on the company's website.

The friendly dinosaur has a counterpart at Chesapeake Energy, named Chesapeake Charlie. Charlie is an orange-tinged beagle whose own coloring book takes youngsters through the entire life cycle of what the Oklahoma City company calls a "clean-burning, affordable, abundant and American fuel."

At last week's Chesapeake-hosted Day of Family Fun in Charleston, W.Va., the beagle mascot rode a horse (the video was uploaded to the company's "Ask Chesapeake" Facebook page). Charlie wears his patriotism literally on his sleeve, with an American flag patch on the side of his jumpsuit.

Talisman Terry maintains a patriotic motif, as well.

On one page, the height of a rig is compared to the Statue of Liberty, a space shuttle, a California Redwood tree and -- tallest of all -- a skyscraper.

"There's an emblem of America, an emblem of technology, an emblem of nature and an emblem of business," said Lori Campbell, a children's literature professor at the University of Pittsburgh who read "Talisman Terry" at the Post-Gazette's request. "It's sending the message that we should be free to do whatever."

In the coloring book, the same plot of land doesn't look much different in the "Before Drilling" and "After Drilling" illustrations. If anything, the "after" image seems more pastoral: new trees have been planted, a bald eagle soars over the hill, a rainbow has appeared.

The all-smiles delivery "undermines any of the negativity by making it all about fun and games," said Ms. Campbell.

"It's fairly innocuous," she said. "And a little bit subversive."

Then again, the dilemma of all English studies -- reading too much into things -- also applies here, she said.

"Sometimes a tree is just a tree," she said.

That seems to be Talisman's interpretation.

"Let's keep in mind our audience. If you're talking age 9 or younger, you can't get into the questions like, 'What is in fracking fluid?'" said Natalie Cox, the firm's head of U.S. communications.

"If we were making a presentation to the governor in Harrisburg, we'd get into technical details. But we wouldn't give him a coloring book, either."

Talisman has primarily operated in northeastern parts of Pennsylvania, but statewide education efforts are working their way through different age levels.

Community outreach efforts in shale communities target adults first, then high school students and finally the elementary set, said Larry Michael, the executive director for workforce and economic development at the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport.

When the Marcellus Shale industry arrived, "The initial priority was to put in programs to get people off the unemployment rolls," he said.

Now, his team is working at the high school level, offering curriculum and training to teachers over the summer. It will begin the elementary-education rollout sometime after the summer.

The industry might provide materials for the professors but the presentations always present both sides of the drilling debate, Mr. Michael said.

Materials like the Talisman Terry coloring book would be distributed by the companies and not his instructors, said Mr. Michael. That kind of industry to school transaction has gotten energy companies in trouble before.

Children's book publisher Scholastic stopped publishing the "United States of Energy Lesson" plan for fourth-graders in May after critics pointed out that the material was funded with $300,000 from the American Coal Foundation.

Even a nice Fracosaurus like Talisman Terry has been the target of criticism. The book circulated among anti-drilling protestors last year, with the blog Fracking Underground labeling the effort an attempt to "brainwash the next generation of Pennsylvanians."

Ms. Campbell wouldn't go that far, but she sees Talisman Terry as part of "a long tradition of trying to create change in society by targeting children."

It clearly employs "the dual address" -- a narrative technique that intentionally targets both the child and the adult reading to the child. There are even echoes of literature like "Oliver Twist," which is ostensibly a story about a young orphan but also a commentary on pay disparity and the welfare of children, she said.

But while she wouldn't exactly place Talisman Terry in the same tier as Charles Dickens, Ms. Campbell said the company did make a smart choice with its narrator.

"Children seem to like dinosaurs," she said. "Like ... who's that guy? Barney."


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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