Earth Day 2012: Developing our 'Green Intelligence' on Fossil Fuels

Students consider American consumption of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas; learn about new methods of extracting these fuels; and discuss their pros & cons.

To the Teacher:

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, believes that environmental awareness and action are the next frontier in the field of social and emotional learning. Goleman calls this environmental awareness "green intelligence." See his article on the Yale Environment 360 website.

In today's lesson students will develop their green awareness by considering American consumption of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas; learning about new methods of extracting these fuels; and discussing their pros & cons.


Students will:

  • share their associations with the term "fossil fuels" and come up with a definition
  • consider the daily use of fossil fuels in our lives
  • study and discuss two charts depicting fossil fuel consumption in the U.S.
  • study and compare pros and cons of new fossil fuel reserves and ways of tapping into these reserves
  • discuss and research pros and cons of renewable energy sources

Gathering: What are fossil fuels? 

(12 minutes)

Ask students to share what comes to mind when they hear the term "fossil fuels." Next ask them to come up with a definition.

Definition of FOSSIL FUEL (Merriam Webster): a fuel (as coal, oil, or natural gas) formed in the earth from plant or animal remains.

According to MyClimateChange.Net: "Fossil fuels are fuels containing carbon - coal, oil and gas - that were formed over millions of years through the decay, burial and compaction of rotting vegetation on land, and of marine organisms on the sea floor. Burning fossil fuels is the major way in which humans add to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

Explain to students that in today's lesson we'll look at the use of fossil fuels in the U.S. and the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. Next, we'll consider the pros and cons of some new ways of extracting coal, oil and gas. 


Small group work:

Fossil fuel consumption in the US 

(15 minutes)

In groups of four, ask students to study and discuss the two charts below. In chart one, they'll focus on the growth in fossil fuel consumption. In chart two, they'll focus on the percentage of US energy consumption that is based on fossil fuels.





Small group questions to consider:

  • What are your thoughts about the fuel usage depicted in these two charts, knowing that fossil fuel reserves are finite?
  • Discuss your own use of fossil fuels on a daily basis. 
  • What alternatives to these fossil fuels are you familiar with?



Ask a representative from each group to share some of the major points made in their small group discussion. Note the similarities and differences.

Discuss with students what they know about their own fossil fuel consumption. Ask students to give examples of how they consume fossil fuels in the ways listed below. Explain that the production of each of these requires fossil fuels.

  • electricity use 
  • heating (and cooling) our homes, schools, stores and office buildings
  • food consumption
  • manufactured items they use, eg, products, packaging; etc.

Elicit and share with your students these facts:

  • Close to 90% of the energy we use in this country comes from traditional fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and gas). 
  • Exploring and extracting these fossil fuels causes environmental damage, and burning them contributes to smog, acid rain, and global warming.
  • We use coal, oil, and natural gas to heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity, and run our industries.
  • Our supply of fossil fuels is limited.

So what to do?


Exploring new ways to extract fossil fuels 

(18 minutes)

One argument is that with increased energy demand, we need to expand the fossil fuel supply using such methods as (1) deep sea offshore drilling; (2) hydraulic fracking for gas; (3) exploring and tapping into tar sand and oil shale, or (4) by using "clean coal."

Ask students to investigate these newer processes for getting fossil fuels out of the earth. If there is time, invite students to choose one of these four fossil fuel options to research, focusing in particular on the pros and cons of each. This could take the rest of the lesson and would continue as a homework assignment. If time is short, use the attached handouts to encourage students to explore some of the pros and cons of each of the four "new" fossil fuel options presented.

In the same groups as before, provide each student with one of the four handouts. Ask everyone to read their handout before discussing in their small groups the pros and cons of these new fossil fuel options.

After about 10 minutes ask students to come back to the large group. Discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • In their small group discussions, did they notice similarities/differences between the four options?
  • Did anything they learned surprise them?
  • What do students think about the assertion that: "fossil fuels would not be competitive if environmental and health costs were factored in"?
  • How do they feel about exploring and tapping into these new sources of fossil fuel?


(5 minutes)

Ask a few volunteers to share one thing they learned today and how they think it relates to Earth Day.


For homework, ask students to research the pros and cons of nuclear power, which some people consider to be a renewable energy source. Alternatively, ask students to research the pros and cons of solar, wind or another renewable energy source. 


This lesson was written for by Marieke van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: