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Railroad Commission Hopeful: New Textbook is Flawed

Becky Berger, a candidate for Texas railroad commissioner, this week criticized an environmental science textbook that is under review by the Texas Board of Education, muddling the book's path to final approval.

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A candidate for Texas railroad commissioner this week unleashed a torrent of criticism on an environmental science textbook under review by the Texas Board of Education, muddling the book's path to final approval.

Becky Berger, an oil and gas geologist who is competing in the 2014 Republican primary for an open seat on the Railroad Commission, the state's oil and gas regulator, said in written testimony to the board that a book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and titled Environmental Science is full of “misleading, inaccurate and partial explanations of our global environment." She said it paints the oil and gas industry in an unjustly negative light while touting the benefits — but not the drawbacks — of some renewable energy sources.

In a vote Friday afternoon, the board added the book to a list of “approved” materials for high school classrooms, contingent upon a review of board members' concerns, sparked by Berger's testimony. The episode has irked a progressive watchdog group, which says it is evidence of political ambition and oil and gas interests thrusting themselves into the process.

“Once again, we’re seeing folks weigh in at the last minute and try to hijack the process,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as a monitor of “far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders.”

Berger told the Tribune that an education lobbyist asked her to testify, and that she had just two hours to look over the material. But had she more time, she would have detailed even more “errors” in the book, she said.

When she testified Wednesday night at the board’s meeting, Berger shared a list of 15 items in the book that she felt were inaccurate. She touched on subjects including climate change, ozone layer depletion, energy efficiency and wind power production. She also said that the book contained too much social science and not enough hard science, and that chapters relied on old data.

Berger took particular exception about a prompt in the book asking students whether folks who rely on well water should be concerned about well contamination. She said that studies have not proved that the process can taint water supplies. 

“If we don’t frack, we don’t produce,” she said. "We should not be misleading our kids and scaring them away from the sciences.”

Berger is not the lone conservative to urge the board to reject the book. On its website, a nonprofit group called Women on the Wall described the book as propaganda that “demonizes” the oil and gas industry.  

“If these textbooks are approved, Texas’ oil/natural gas industry will eventually be destroyed," the website says. "The oil/gas industry drives our Great State’s economy and provides thousands of jobs — we must protect it." 

The textbook in question, the only environmental studies book that was up for approval, had already been through the board’s monthslong evaluation process, which involves a review by a panel of experts. That panel identified three minor errors, but none of them having to do with the substance of the textbook. Schools are not required to use approved books, but the board's seal makes it more likely that they will do so. 

Still, Berger’s testimony stirred concerns among some board members.

On Thursday, Tom Maynard, a Republican board member from Williamson County, said Berger’s testimony prompted him to seek input from the state geologist.

“There are factual errors,” he said, “because it's outdated information, particularly as it relates to the petroleum industry. When it starts talking about fracking as a new technology when we've used it in the state of Texas for 60 years almost, that we know of.”

Lawrence Allen, a Democratic board member from Fresno, said Berger’s testimony raised questions about how the board evaluated textbooks. "So if the review panels had unlimited time to find all these errors and they didn't find them, and then all of a sudden we find an expert that found 50 errors in 15 minutes,” he said, “can we even trust our own process?"  

In a preliminary vote Thursday, the board approved the book contingent on the publisher addressing Berger’s concerns. On Friday, it finalized the vote.

Early Friday morning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt responded point by point to Berger’s testimony (see response). The publisher said it would review a few items and would make minor additions or tweaks to others. For instance, the publisher said it would add a note to a passage about fuel efficiency of hybrid cars to address their expense and disposal issues with their batteries. But on other points, the publisher said, Berger apparently misconstrued or did not fully understand some of the sections she mentioned, pointing to passages that appear to contradict her criticism.

On the issue of climate change, Berger criticized the book for not mentioning the concept “global cooling,” which she described as the “the other part of the climate cyclical phenomenon.”

That’s in reference to studies showing that the earth’s temperature has stayed relatively flat over the past decade, a trend that climate change skeptics say conflicts with the scientific consensus that the planet is warming in the long term as energy accumulates in the climate system.

But Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University who studies the effect of water vapor on the global climate, said Berger's argument about climate change was misleading.

"If I were writing a textbook," he said, "I might mention this variability in the temperature trends — but only to show how advocates twist data to try to cast doubt on mainstream climate science."

In denying the existence of global warming, Berger is following in Barry Smitherman's footsteps. He is the man she is vying to succeed on the Railroad Commission, an agency that frequently pushes back against federal carbon-cutting regulations aimed at curbing climate change. Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general, has called global warming a “hoax.” 

“The earth is not warming; we are in a 10-[year] cooling cycle,” he wrote in an email to conservative blogger Donna Garner, who speaks regularly on education issues. “The only accurate temperature measurements are those beginning with satellites in the 1970’s.” 

Ahead of the education board’s Friday vote, Quinn, of the Texas Freedom Network, said he was encouraged that any required changes to the book would be minor. But he said he was troubled that a candidate for public office could cause such a stir for a textbook that had undergone months of review.

“If she spent just a couple hours reviewing it,” he said, “that says a lot right there.” 

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