GULF OIL SPILL: What happened, and who is responsible?

Students discuss the massive BP oil spill and view two short videos as they consider what happened in the gulf, their own consumption of oil, and who should be held responsible for the spill.

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. During his keynote address at Morningside Center's recent conference ("Courageous Schools: Putting Social & Emotional Learning at the Heart of Education"), Goleman called this environmental awareness "green intelligence." See his article on the Yale Environment 360 website at:
In the classroom lesson below, students will develop their "green intelligence" by considering the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


Students will:
  • share their associations with the word oil
  • discover the prevalence of petroleum based products in our lives
  • watch two video clips about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill 
  • discuss who is responsible for the oil spill
Social and Emotional Skills
  • compassion for those affected by the spill
  • awareness of students' own feelings about the environmental devastation 
  • consideration of cause and effect and the need to take responsibility for our actions
Materials needed

Gathering and Introduction

(5 min) 
Ask your students: When you hear the word "oil," what does it make you think of?
Ask students not to think too hard and share whatever first crosses their mind. If your students need some encouragement, you can walk around your class, prompting: "If I say oil, you say _____________" as you turn to different students. For this gathering, you're not asking for stories, just a series of quick word associations.
Students are likely to share associations with the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and may also say something about the cars people drive.

Check agenda

(2 min) 
Explain that in today's lesson students will explore the issue of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and who is responsible for the spill. 

Do you use oil products every day?

(8 min)
Ask your class to raise their hands if they think they use oil products on a daily basis.
Pick up on your students' associations from the gathering as you share some of the following information about oil.
Most people in the U.S. use gasoline to power their cars. Gasoline is a refined version of the thick, rust-colored, goopy substance that's been gushing out of the leaking BP well—the same substance that's been floating in the Gulf of Mexico and washing ashore ever since the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010. This substance, which makes up the oil slick, is known as crude oil. Besides providing us with fuel for our cars and other methods of transportation, this oil is also processed for other uses, including: running electrical power plants, lubricating squeaky doors or wheels, and in the production of healthcare products, medicines, plastics and many other everyday products we use around the house and at school. Among the products made in part with oil:
Ammonia, Anesthetics, Antihistamines, Artificial limbs, Artificial Turf, Antiseptics, Aspirin, Auto Parts, Awnings, Balloons, Ballpoint pens, Bandages, Beach Umbrellas, Boats, Bubble Bath, Bubble Gum, Cameras, Candles, Car Battery Cases, Carpets, Caulking, Combs, Cortisones, Cosmetics, Crayons, Credit Cards, Curtains, Deodorants, Detergents, Dice, Disposable Diapers, Dolls, Dyes, Eye Glasses, Electrical Wiring Insulation, Facial Cleanser, Faucet Washers, Fishing Rods, Fishing Line, Fishing Lures, Food Preservatives, Food Packaging, Garden Hoses, Glue, Hair Coloring, Hair Curlers, Hearing Aids, Heart Valves, Heating Oil, Ink, Insect Repellant, Insecticides, Linoleum, Lip Stick, Milk Jugs, Moisturizer, Nail Polish, Oil Filters, Panty Hose, Plastic Bags, Perfume, Petroleum Jelly, Rubber Cement, Rubbing Alcohol, Shampoo, Shaving Cream, Shoes, Toothpaste, Tires, Trash Bags, Upholstery, Vitamin Capsules, Water Pipes, Yarn.
Ask your students for another show of hands to see if they think they use oil products on a daily basis.
Based on this list of products, do they think it would be easy to cut oil consumption out of their lives altogether?
And yet there's only so much oil in the world. The earth has a limited supply, which is why oil companies continue to seek new places to drill for oil—including in the deep seas, where drilling is risky and technologically challenging. 


Reflections on Two Video Clips

(15 min) 
Have your students to watch two ABC news clips. The first clip ( was shot in the first few weeks of the spill, on April 30, 2010. (Note that this early report vastly understates the amount of oil being leaked.) The second piece ( was shot on day 46 of the disaster (June 3, 2010). Note that the videos contain disturbing images of the oil-covered animals.
Before asking students to break into small groups, give them a chance to share any feelings they have about the video clips. The images of wildlife affected by the spill may hit a chord with your students. Give them a few minutes to talk, if necessary using some of the tips and pointers from Teaching In a Time of Crisis at
In small groups ask your students to discuss the following:
  • What has been done about the oil spill so far, according to the videos? 
  • Who is affected by the oil spill, according to the videos? 
  • Who else do you know has been affected by the oil slick so far? 
  • Who else might be affected in the coming months and even years? 

Who is Responsible?

(15 min) 
In the first video, the journalists say that BP is "the company responsible for the [oil] well leak." In the news over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of finger-pointing. Different people, institutions and companies have been blamed for the spill, which is already one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of the U.S.
Who do you think is responsible for the oil spill?
Rank the following players in the oil spill disaster from who is most responsible (1) to who is least responsible (8).
____ BP, the company that rented the rig to drill for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf
____ President Obama, for expanding offshore oil drilling and gas exploration, even though he knew that ultra deep sea drilling is a technologically extreme and very risky type of oil drilling
____ Transocean Ltd., the company in charge of the oil rig maintenance
____ Hyundai Heavy Industries, the makers of the oil rig
____ All of us for using too many oil-based products
____ Government safety inspectors who didn't check the rig as regularly as they were supposed to
____ The people in charge on the rig, who ignored the warning signs that a blowout was going to happen
____ Congress members and other political leaders who have failed to enact policies to drastically reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels (including oil)
In pairs or groups of three, ask students to compare their rankings and discuss.
Back in the big group, ask students what they learned in their pairs/triads. You might also ask: 
  • How do students think this discussion might affect them personally?
  • Can students think of ways we could use less oil-and conserve energy in general? 
  • Do they know of other sources of energy we could use besides oil?


(5 min) 
End the lesson with the same word association game you played in the gathering. See if your students' associations have changed as a result of the day's lesson.

Marieke van Woerkom is an educator and trainer who works with Morningside Center. She has helped young people and adults around the world learn skills to resolve conflict and foster cross-cultural understanding.

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