To Drill or Not to Drill? An Examination of the Reliance and Risk

Apr. 15, 2011 | 0 Comments | Science | Social Studies | 9-12 | Civic Education

Lesson Steps

Warm-up: Exactly how much oil was spilled in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill?
1. Tell the class that the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was articulated by many to be one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Ask them if they can estimate how much oil was spilled in the recent disaster. Some estimate that 184 million gallons were spilled; others posit that 4.9 million barrels were spilled, equal to 205.8 million gallons. ,

2. Ask students the following question: Is it possible for you to fathom 184 million gallons of oil? Let’s put such a number in perspective. Think of 184 million jugs of milk standing side by side; this would cover 1.36 square miles. Or, think of 279 Olympic-sized swimming pools 6 feet 7 inches deep – and if placed in a line end-to-end – would cover a distance of 8.6 miles. ,

3. Tell the students that The Gulf of Mexico contains 660 quadrillion gallons of water – that’s the number 660 with 15 zeros after it. Write this number on the board. Then write the number 184,000,000 on the board and ask the following question: Is the amount of oil spilled significant compared to the amount of water in the Gulf of Mexico? Ask students to use the information provided to calculate a percentage-based answer. If The Gulf of Mexico was the Dallas Cowboy’s football stadium, the oil spill would fill a 24 ounce beverage in the total space of the stadium. The oil spilled is a mere .00000002788% (184,000,000 divided by 660 quadrillion, then multiplied by 100 to obtain a percentage) of the Gulf’s 660 quadrillion gallons of water; however, oil typically spreads to affect a greater volume of water during a spill.

4. Have the class estimate the following: The world’s proven oil reserves are about 1.36 trillion barrels; hence, write the number 136 with ten zeros after it on the board. Then write the number 4,900,000 on the board. Now, ponder the following: if one asserts that approximately 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf (the number 49 with five zeros after it), is this amount significant compared to the world’s proven oil reserves? Again, calculating a percentage is useful. The world’s proven oil reserves are about 1.36 trillion barrels, which makes the 2010 spill account for merely .00036% of the world’s remaining proven oil (4,900,000 divided by 1.36 trillion then multiplied by 100).

5. Ask students the following: if approximately 272.7692 gallons of oil are required to provide the annual energy needs for the average, oil-powered U.S. home, how many U.S. homes could be powered for a year using the energy equivalency of the oil spilled in the disaster, assuming that 184 million gallons were leaked? If one uses the estimate of 184 million gallons, the oil spilled would have been sufficient to provide power for 674,563 U.S. homes for an entire year (184,000,000 divided by 272.7692).


Activity One: How Much Do We Really Rely on Oil?
1. Ask students if it would be possible to conduct class without using any oil based products and assess the answers. Inquire what materials would need to be eliminated in order to do so. Pens, binders, notebooks, desks and even clothes are all oil based, making it near impossible to conduct class.

2. Tell the class that you would like to attempt to not use any oil based products for the rest of class. Explain to them that they will have to take notes. When they inevitably pull out pens, pencils and paper inform them that these products are all made using oil and so they cannot use them. Ask students to stand up because their desks and chairs are also made with oil. In fact, almost everything in the classroom and the classroom itself is produced with oil. If weather and timing permit, take your students outside. If you cannot go outside, ask students to sit on the floor and explain that only if class were held outside and were conducted orally without any writing, hand outs, calculators, lockers, binders or any other materials used everyday could class be conducted without oil based products. Make it clear to them that their daily lives are inextricably linked to oil. (Whether the class is outdoors or not, resume normal class procedure after acknowledging that the lesson could not continue without oil based products. Class can be continued outside if feasible)

3. Hand out Reproducible #1 – Portioned Copy from ANWR’s Products Made from Oil. Have the students circle the items that they or their family members use on a regular basis, underline the products they feel would be extremely difficult to live without, and put a star next to the items without which many people wouldn’t survive.

4. As a class, discuss the students’ answers and allow them to briefly debate their findings.


Activity Two: Quiz-Examining misconceptions about the Gulf Oil Spill.
1. Baseline Assessment: Ask the students what they heard in the news about the Gulf oil spill and capture some of the main themes on the board. Answers will vary.

2. Divide students into groups of four and hand out a copy of Reproducible #2 – Test Your Oil Spill Knowledge to each group.

3. Allow time for the groups to take the quiz together.

4. Hand out Reproducible #3 – Answer Key to each group.

5. Ask students to identify which of the items previously written on the board were either perceived as contradictory, misleading, confusing or simply new pieces of information. Ask them to add clarifications or any new items they found most interesting and important for the public to know after taking the quiz.


Activity Three: Research, Roles and Debate
Have the class posit the following hypothetical: Federal government officials need to make a decision about whether they should proceed with an oceanic oil drilling project in the near future. There are conveniences and consequences when it comes to oil use, and this activity seeks to explore this interplay.

  1. Hand out Reproducibles #4 – 9. Tell the class that these documents explore a possible drilling project in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and will help them better understand the various positions often depicted in such debates. These documents will help portray the hypothetical scenario and lay the groundwork for the various perspectives that students will represent in the activity.
  2. Assign an equal number of students to each of the following roles: oil company executive, national environmentalist, local environmentalist, Indigenous Alaskan civilian, fisherman employed by the oil company, fisherman not employed by the oil company, federal government official, tourist, marine biologist, tourism industry worker.
  3. Tell the students that they will be involved in a debate where they will assume the perspective of the person they were assigned and will argue the pros and cons of oil drilling in the hypothetical example. Students should reflect upon the same issues encompassed in the debate over whether or not to drill in Alaska. If the role they play is under the opinion that no drilling should take place, they should be prepared with alternative methods for energy production. Other students should be prepared to defend drilling as long as it is undertaken as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The final claim that some students will defend is that drilling should take place, but with certain precautions in place.
  4. Remind the students that they will have to provide complete and reasonable arguments for their positions. For example, if students are assigned the role of environmentalist, they should not simply say there should no longer be oil drilling, since energy still must come from somewhere. In this case, factors such as reliance on oil, the impact on the job industry and alternative energy sources should be addressed. Students must convince the public of their positions and why others would benefit as well.
  5. Allow students assigned to the same position time to briefly meet to promote collaboration and discuss various arguments. Make it clear that it is possible for members of the same group to have different perspectives on the situation; each student will have to support his or her own ideas in the end.
  6. Allow students extra time for research either at home as homework or additional time in the classroom.
  7. With the teacher as a moderator, stage a classroom debate in which every student must participate. This is not a two sided debate; the desks should be arranged in a circle to facilitate communication among the group.
  8. During the debate, allow each person to present his or her role and approach to the issue. Foster a group discussion in terms of the debate. As a deliverable for the assignment, tell the students that they must develop and provide a collective compromise to the federal officials in Alaska. Assign one person to write the multiple ideas and opinions generated on the board. Acknowledge that it may not be possible for students to establish a collective agreement. In this case, explore various compromises and/or prepare two messages to deliver to the federal officials with varying opinions.


Wrap Up: Synthesis of Opinion(s)  

  1. Ask students to share their personal reflections and opinions about the hypothetical drilling example. Compare and contrast the findings.
  2. As an additional activity, have each student compose a letter to Earth Day Network’s Education Department (contact information below) detailing the approach he or she thinks should be taken towards oceanic oil drilling. Selected letters will appear on our website ( based upon their comprehensiveness, clarity of thought and the argument’s eloquence.
  3. Collect the letters and grade them based on each student’s ability to synthesize a coherent, comprehensive argument.
  4. President Obama is quoted as saying that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”[9] Allow the students to write a brief, take-home essay response for homework on whether or not they agree with this statement. Use information obtained from the debate to inform one’s argument.


Extension 1: Comparing the BP Spill to Spills of the Past

  1. Have the students think about what they know about past oil spills. Can they name a previous oil spill?  If so, how many and why did they occur? The students will most likely say that they don’t have very much detailed knowledge of past spills since many were not alive when they occurred. However, they may have some knowledge of the Exxon Valdez spill since it was the most recent one of popular reference in American culture before Deepwater Horizon.
  2. Ask how much oil they believe that the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill dumped into Prince William Sound in Alaska after striking Bligh Reef.[10] It leaked 10.8 million gallons, or 5.9% of the quantity in the Deepwater Horizon incident.[11]
  3. Ask students why they think the spill in Alaska was such a widely discussed and publicized subject at the time, even though it was such a small quantity compared to the recent Gulf oil spill. A spill is a spill, and the 10.8 million gallons of oil that were dumped into Alaska’s natural environment was a large amount. This spill also took place in a part of Alaska that was previously perceived as remote, pristine and unpolluted. Thus, this factor made the consequences all the more complicated and difficult.[12]
  4. Challenge the students by inquiring how the BP spill compared to the one in Kuwait during the Gulf War. The BP spill was 61% to 76% as large as the intentional leaking of between 239.4and 300 million gallons into the Persian Gulf by Iraqi military forces in Kuwait. [13], [14]
  5. What was the Gulf of Mexico’s worst spill before the 2010 incident? Ixtoc 1 in 1979-1980 when 140.3 million gallons were leaked into the Bay of Campeche of the coast of Mexico. This was about 76% as large as the BP spill. [15]
  6. Have students review Reproducible #10 – Portioned Copy from NWF’s Compare the Exxon Valdez and BP Oil Spills. Ask them to hypothesize the future effects of the Gulf oil spill considering the ramifications from the Exxon Valdez spill (noting the quantity difference and depth of water difference between the two spills).


Extension 2:Cooking With and Without Oil – A Hands on Experience!

  1. To start this activity, make sure you have the proper space, supervision and permission necessary to prepare the food, along with accessibility to locally grown produce. As preparation the teacher will need to find a recipe for fruit salad using local and non-local ingredients. Additionally, the teacher will need to provide the necessary food items in the recipe to perform the activity. 
  2. Ask students what typical meal they can cook without using any oil. Ask them to give an example of a meal that doesn’t rely on oil and one that does. Ask them which is easier to conceptualize and why. Food grown at home and eaten raw is the only food that doesn’t rely on oil for anything aside from possibly the fertilizer needed to grow it. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are all often made with oil as a main ingredient. Be sure that students understand that imported food – even local food – relies on oil for production and/or transportation.
  3. Now that they know how necessary oil is for nearly all meals, ask students if any of them have eaten a meal that doesn’t rely on any oil for preparation or transportation. This should spur a small discussion; some students may live on farms or have been to farms where vegetables, fruits, and dairy products are produced which they have consumed on premises. Additionally, many of them may have gardens or have eaten items from gardens. Remind students that most fertilizers rely on oil and that the feed for many animals is also derived from oil, so it is often a necessity without realizing it.
  4. Ask students how far locally grown food travels. What distance does food travel if it is not locally grown? 150 miles[16] for locally grown and 1,500 miles[17] for other food.
  5. Divide the class into two groups (or 4 if the class is large). If there are two groups, have one group follow a recipe to make a simple fruit salad using only local produce, while the other group assembles the ingredients for a recipe using only imported produce (produce that commonly relies on greater amounts of oil in order to be available in one’s area).
  6. If there are four groups, have two prepare each recipe. Do not tell the students which group has the local ingredients and which has the imported.Be sure that students do not taste during the preparation!
  7. Place each prepared item at the front of the classroom, and have the students sample each dish and vote on which they think tastes better, and separately, which dish appears more appetizing -“Dish A” or “Dish B.”
  8. Discuss the results. Which dish did the class like better? Why do the students believe this is the case?
  9. A modified version of this activity can be done by simply purchasing one item – an apple, a cucumber, a carrot, etc. that’s locally grown and another of the same item that’s imported and have the students vote on their opinions.
  10. Ask students how fuel efficient they believe a new light truck that may be used to transport produce would be.15-20 miles per gallon.[18]
  11. Ask students how many gallons of gas would be used to transport one truckload of food locally, at 150 miles, versus typically, at 1500 miles. 75-100 gallons of gas would be used to transport one truckload of typical produce, and 7.5-10 gallons would be used to transport one truckload of local produce. Divide 1500 by the miles per gallon to get the number of gallons for typical and 150 by the miles per gallon to get the number of gallons for local. That is 15.75 to 21 gallons of oil for the transportation of one truckload of local produce and 157.5 to 210 gallons of oil for the same amount of typical produce to be transported.[19]
  12. Ask students how much oil is used on average to transport typical as opposed to local produce. 10 times as much (typical gallons divided by local gallons).
  13. Explain to students that this analysis suggests that local transportation by these means uses 110 to 147 pounds of oil, or the weight of approximately one 150 pound adult, and typical transportation uses 1,102.5 to 1,470 pounds, or the weight of approximately ten people. That number of people is how much the fuel alone weighs in the transportation of one truckload of produce. The truck itself weighs 8,500 pounds on average.[20]



Students demonstrated more informed perspectives on the details of the Gulf oil spill and oceanic oil drilling in general. Moreover, they comprehended the various economic and environmental viewpoints present in the current debate on oil drilling. Lastly, students understood the multifarious nature of our society’s dependence on oil and its positive and negative effects on the ocean.

[1]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 25 January 2011 from

[2]Aigner, Erin. "Map and Estimates of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico - Interactive Map -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Retrieved 25 January 2011 from

[3]"Oil to Gasoline." NEWTON/ANL Home Page. Retrieved 25 January 2011 from

[4]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[5]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[6]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[7]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[8]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[9]"Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill." The White House. Retrieved 08 February 2011 from

[10]"Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: Ten Years Later." Arctic Circle. Web. 09 Feb. 2011.

[11]"News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[12] ibid

[14] "News Headlines." CNBC Mobile Home. Retrieved 09 February 2011 from

[15] ibid

[16]Hsing, Crystal. "Deciding between Organic or Locally Grown Food, UCLA Sustainability." UCLA Sustainability. Retrieved 08 Feb. 2011 from

[17]"Is Local Food Better? | Worldwatch Institute." Worldwatch Institute | Vision for a Sustainable World. Retrieved  08 February 2011 from

[18]"Transportation Sector Key Indicators and Delivered Energy Consumption." Energy Information Administration. Retrieved 02 February 2011 from

[19]"Gasoline FAQs - Energy Information Administration." U.S.Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved 02 February 2011 from

[20]"EIA - Analysis of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards for Light Trucks - Introduction." U.S.Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis. Retrieved 08 February 2011 from