Most Americans are "energy illiterate." These lessons for high school students promote energy literacy, especially about oil. We begin with a student energy quiz, followed by three readings and suggested classroom activities.

Americans, says oil expert Paul Roberts, are "energy illiterate" ( Mother Jones interview, 6/8/04). The main purpose of the following materials is to promote energy literacy, especially about our main energy source, oil. The materials begin with a literacy test that students will probably fail but that can help to promote discussion and provoke interest. Three readings follow, along with suggested classroom activities.

A Literacy Test

1. Of the energy sources upon which the U.S. depends, which one provides the U.S. with the most energy?

a. coal
b. nuclear power
c. oil
d. natural gas

2. How much of the world's oil supply is consumed by the U.S., which has 3% of the world's population consume?

a. 3%
b. 5%
c. 15%
d. 25%

3. How much of the world's oil supply does the U.S. produce?

a. 3%
b. 5%
c. 15%
d. 25%

4. What is the primary use of oil in the U.S.?

a. industrial products
b. transportation
c. drugs
d. pesticides

5. What part of the world has most of the world's known oil reserves?

a. North America
b. Caspian Sea area
c. Persian Gulf area
d. Asia

6. What country has the world's greatest known oil reserves?

a. Iraq
b. Russia
c. Nigeria
d. Saudi Arabia

7. If the U.S. had to rely completely on its own oil resources, how long would it be, at the current rate of use, before the country ran out of oil?

a. 4 years, 3 months
b. 35 years
c. 6 months
d. 10-12 years

8. How long will it be until the world's known oil reserves begin to decline irreversibly?

a. next century
b. 3 centuries
c. within this century
d. 35 years

9. What would be one probable result of such a decline?

Your answer:



1. (c) Oil provides 40%; natural gas, 24%; coal, 23%; nuclear power, 8%; all others (wind, solar, etc.), 5%.

2. (d) 25%, or 20 million barrels a day (one barrel = 42 gallons)

3. (a) 3% or 9 million barrels a day

4. (b) Transportation. Oil provides 97% of all fuel for cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains, and ships.

5. (c) The Persian Gulf has about two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves.

6. (d) Saudi Arabia has 262.7 billion barrels of known oil reserves. Iraq is second, Iran third, the United Arab Emirates fourth, Kuwait fifth. All are Persian Gulf countries.

7. (a) Four years and three months.

8. (c) According to the pioneering research of M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist who worked for many years at Shell Oil in Houston, the oil output of any given reservoir typically follows a bell-shaped curve. At first, production in an oil field rises rapidly as the most accessible stores are tapped. Eventually, daily output reaches its maximum or peak level and then begins an irreversible decline. Some experts believe that global peak production will occur sometime in the next ten years. Development of such other sources as polar supplies and deep-offshore oil may extend the peak further into the 21st century. But all informed experts agree that "Hubbert's peak," as it has become known, will almost certainly occur during this century. World oil production will then be in an irreversible decline and in time be exhausted. "The crisis will come not when we pump the last drop of oil but rather when the rate at which oil can be pumped out of the ground starts to diminish." (Andrew Goodstein, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil )

9. The results of such a crisis? Savage competition among nations for oil supplies. Increasing transportation costs. Cutbacks in economic activity. High inflation. Global depression. Reduced food supplies (because agriculture today depends on oil for truck and tractor fuel as well as for pesticides and herbicides), which could lead to widespread starvation.


  • U.S. Department of Energy and its Energy Information Administration

  • Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum


Reading 1:

A very short history of oil and the U.S., Part I

"Today we are so dependent on oil, and oil is so embedded in our daily doings, that we hardly stop to comprehend its pervasive significance. It is oil that makes possible where we live, how we live, how we commute to work, how we travel....Oil (and natural gas) are the essential components in the fertilizer on which world agriculture depends; oil makes it possible to transport food to the totally non-self-sufficient mega-cities of the world. Oil also provides the plastics and chemicals that are the bricks and mortar of contemporary civilization, a civilization that would collapse if the world's oil wells suddenly went dry." (Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power )

During the 1850s in the United States a search was on for a reliable, safe, reasonably cheap illuminant for lamps. Kerosene lamps tended to be smoky and give off an acrid odor. Seeking a replacement in petroleum (or rock oil, as it was then called), a group of investors formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. They hired Edwin Drake to locate a supply. He went to the tiny town of Titusville, Pennsylvania, hired some drillers, and found nothing for over a year. But on August 27, 1859, Drake's workmen—a blacksmith named William Smith and his two sons— dropped their drill into a crevice. The drill slid another six inches, and the men quit for the rest of the weekend. When Smith checked the well the next day, he saw a dark liquid floating on top of the water.

Drake arrived the next day and, using an ordinary hand pump, began to pump up the liquid. He had hit oil. The news spread quickly. Land prices skyrocketed. So did the population of Titusville. Refined as kerosene, Titusville rock oil hit the market and soon was successful. "It is the light of the age....," wrote R. J. Forbes, author of America's first book on oil, "rock oil emits a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world."

The career of this "dainty light" was short. By the end of the 1870s Thomas Alva Edison had invented the heat-resistant, incandescent light bulb. By 1902 18 million light bulbs were in use. Increasingly, kerosene lamps would be found only in rural America, and the oil industry's chief product was no longer a big money-maker.
It didn't take long, though, for oil in the form of gasoline to replace it, for by 1905 the gasoline-powered car had won out over steam and electricity. Automobile ownership was 8,000 in 1900; by 1912 it was 902,000. In ten years the car went from a status symbol and novelty to a growing necessity. The increasing use of fuel oil to power factories, trains, and ships made it a second major market for oil. And with the demand for oil came the need for new oil fields, first in California, then Texas.

For almost 100 years—through World War II—the U.S. was the world's leading oil producer. It supplied its own needs and six of every seven barrels of oil its allies consumed during the war. But American officials were convinced that U.S. oil resources would not be sufficient for the post-war era. They concluded that the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular with its huge untapped deposits of oil, would be crucial as a supplier. Americans had already helped to create Aramco, the Saudi state oil company.

Even before the war ended President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud on a ship in the Suez Canal. While details of this meeting have never been made fully public, it is clear that the two established the basic arrangement that has existed to this day: the U.S. would guarantee the protection of the Saudi kingdom and the Saudis would provide the U.S. with privileged access to their oil. Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, wrote King Ibn Saud in 1950: "No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States." (The quotations and most of this short history is drawn from Daniel Yergin's The Prize. )

American officials had correctly seen the handwriting on the wall. By the 1950s the U.S. was importing 10 percent of its oil; by the 1960s 18 percent; by the 1970s 45 percent (in 1972 U.S. domestic production entered an irreversible decline); by 1998 over 50 percent; and today just over 56 percent. The portion of imported oil marches ever higher as the U.S.'s own crude oil production drops. Most of our productive fields have already been exploited. Meanwhile, Americans continue to use more and more oil. The 13.5 million barrels per day of oil we used for transportation in 2001 is expected to rise to 20.7 million in 2025. (All statistics are from U.S. Department of Energy.)

In 2003 the United States consumed about 7.3 billion barrels of oil. At the end of that year the U.S. itself had 31 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. If the U.S. were not importing more than half of its oil from abroad and if it had to rely on its own reservoirs and its Strategic Petroleum Reserve with hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in Texas and Louisiana, the country would run out of oil in four years and three months. (John Cassidy, "Pump Dreams," The New Yorker, 10/11/04)

For discussion

1. How aware are students of their use of oil? Divide the class into groups of four with the task of listing products they personally use that include oil as an ingredient. A reporter from each group should report its findings. List them on the board. Are there any uncertainties? How can students verify whether or not a product includes oil? (There are countless such products: ink, crayons, bubble gum, dishwashing liquids, deodorants, eyeglasses, records, tires, heart valves, pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, plastic toys and anything else made of plastic.)

2. Were there any surprises for students in the Literacy Test?

3. What is Hubbert's peak and why is it significant?

4. What is the significance of the World War II meeting between President Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud?

5. Why has the U.S. gone from being the world's leading producer of oil to a nation that imports more than half its oil?


Reading 2:

A very short history of oil and the U.S., Part II

On January 23, 1980 President Jimmy Carter declared in his State of Union address: "Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." Very prominent among those "vital interests" was oil. Carter saw the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan a few weeks earlier as a potential threat to the Gulf region. Another threat was Iran's revolutionary new clerical government led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, some of whose followers had just taken over the American Embassy in Tehran and with it dozens of American hostages.

In the quarter century since then other American presidents have seen some threat arise to Persian Gulf oil:

1987: Iran and Iraq are at war. President Ronald Reagan orders U.S. warships to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf to protect them from attack by either country and, he says, to demonstrate "U.S. commitment to the flow of oil through the Gulf."

1990: Iraq invades Kuwait, claiming that country's territory as really its own. President George H.W. Bush arranges with Saudi Arabia for the establishment of U.S. bases in that country to defend against the Iraqi attack in Kuwait and the possibility of one aimed at Saudi Arabia itself. He declares, "Our nation now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence....The sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States."

2003: President George W. Bush orders an invasion of Iraq. The first military objective in Operation Iraqi Freedom is to get control of its oil fields and refineries in the south of Iraq. When American troops reach Baghdad, they immediately seize control of the Iraqi government's Oil Ministry while allowing looting and destruction of other government buildings.
Today American troops guard pipelines carrying Iraqi crude oil to Ceyhan, Turkey's Mediterranean seaport. American troops train forces in Georgia to protect the newly constructed oil pipeline running from Baku to Tblisi to Ceyhan. American ships and planes monitor all Gulf traffic and guard the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf's outlet to the Indian Ocean.

U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were established for use in the war against Afghanistan. But once that war was over the Bush administration received permission from those countries to station American troops there indefinitely. This action angered Russia, which regards the area as its own sphere of influence. But the U.S. has a strong interest in oil deposits in the Caspian Sea basin. It also wants to link up the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline with the flow of oil from Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan.

U.S. concerns about oil drive its military actions beyond the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea area. American troops help defend Colombia's Cano Limon pipeline, which links oil fields in the interior with coastal refineries. American ships and planes patrol oil tanker routes in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Western Pacific Ocean.

"Taken together, these developments lead to an inescapable conclusion that the American military is being used more and more for the protection of overseas oil fields and the supply routes that connect them to the United States and its allies. Such endeavors, once largely confined to the Gulf area, are now being extended to unstable oil regions in other parts of the world. Slowly but surely, the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service." ( Klare, Blood and Oil )

Those "unstable oil regions" include countries on four continents:

  • Mexico in North America
  • Venezuela and Colombia in South America
  • Nigeria and Angola in Africa
  • Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in Asia

Angola, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Nigeria, and Russia have all suffered civil wars or ethnic conflicts recently. Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Venezuela have had various forms of political disorder. As Klare points out, "The violence is not simply an unfortunate coincidence....the production of petroleum in otherwise undeveloped countries can led to distortions of the local economy and political system that practically insures instability."

The main reason is that the ruling group typically controls oil revenues. It rewards itself, its friends, and, to assure control of the country, its military and police. The rulers repress others, especially those who protest. Ethnic, political, or religious divisions may play a role in the violence that often follows. But whether the money made from oil is the direct cause of the violence or contributes to it, "the distorting effects of oil production" are a factor. All of which helps to explain why American troops are guarding a pipeline in Colombia, have military bases in central Asia, and monitor oil tanker routes on the oceans of the world.

Access to oil is one important reason why the U.S. government provides corrupt and dictatorial leaders like those in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf nations with weapons, military training for troops, and diplomatic support. It also helps explain why more than 1,300 American soldiers have died and thousands of others have been wounded in Iraq.

The need for oil is also one important reason why terrorists want to attack the United States. People in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf suffer from lack of basic freedoms, lack of decent work, and repression by their leaders. "Militants direct their anger first at the regime in power, but, because they regard the United States—not unreasonably—as a major factor in the regime's survival, they extend their fury, and their vengeance, to American forces." (Klare, Blood and Oil )

In 1989, just before the Gulf War, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi of a very prominent family, urged King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to use the veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union to defend the Saudi kingdom against a possible Iraqi invasion. King Fahd preferred to use the American army, which from bin Laden's point of view was an army of infidels. He turned into a violent foe of the Saudi government. Since then Al Qaeda has struck again and again at targets inside Saudi Arabia. But now the United States was also his foe. The results were Al Qaeda attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole in Yemen, and then the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

It is for such reasons and because of such events that Michael Klare titles his book Blood and Oil. But the U.S. runs on oil. It does not have enough of its own oil to avoid being caught up in the corruption and violence of countries thousands of miles away from its own shores or to avoid being a target for terrorists. How is the United States to solve its energy problems?

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Studying a map of the Persian Gulf region should be useful. What countries are included? What problems in this region are students aware of? (For example, poor U.S. relations with Iran, whose nuclear program is currently under scrutiny; the Al Qaeda threat to Saudi Arabia; ongoing violence in Iraq.) Locate on a world map the other places named in this reading.

3. What evidence is there for Klare's statement that "the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service"?

4. Why is the U.S. supporting corrupt and dictatorial leaders? Leaving aside any moral judgments about such support, why might it be dangerous to the U.S.?

5. What is the link between oil and terrorism? What, specifically, is the link between oil and the 9/11 attacks?


Reading 3:

What should U.S. energy policy be?

1. President Bush's National Energy Policy

In 2001, just weeks after being sworn in, President Bush appointed Vice President Dick Cheney to lead a major review of U.S. energy policy. His taskforce met with dozens of executives from energy companies and energy trade associations as well as with a much smaller number of labor union, environmental, and consumer group leaders. On May 17, 2001, the Cheney team issued the National Energy Policy, a lengthy, detailed report. In a speech that same day President Bush outlined its major features.

  • The plan "reduces demand by promoting innovation and technology to make us the world leader in efficiency and conservation....It will underwrite research and development into energy-saving technology. It will require manufacturers to build more energy-efficient appliances."

  • "The second part of our energy plan will be to expand and diversify our nation's energy supplies. Diversity is important not only for energy security, but also for national security. Over-dependence on any one source of energy, especially a foreign source, leaves us vulnerable to price shocks, supply interruptions, and in the worse case, blackmail."

  • "Our energy plan also supports the development of new and renewable sources of energy....It proposes incentives to buy new cars that run on alternative fuels....It supports research into fuel cells, a technology of tomorrow that can power a car with hydrogen...."

  • The plan does not call for any reduction in our use of oil. Instead it proposes to increase consumption by expanding America's oil production. It would do so, for example, by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a proposal that was turned down by Congress in 2003 but is now being revived. In the meantime, the president has ordered the opening up of more public lands for oil and natural gas drilling.

  • The plan recognizes that even with new drilling, the gap between U.S. oil production and and consumption will grow. It calls for closing this gap by increasing America's import of foreign oil from such Latin American countries as Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia; from Russia; from the Caspian Sea producers (Azerbaijan and Kazkhstan); from West Africa-Nigeria and Angola.

Aware of the possibilities for violence and terrorism in these oil-exporting nations, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a report in 2001, declaring, "The United States must retain the capability to send well-armed and logistically supported forces to critical points around the globe, even in the face of enemy opposition." It identifies oil-producing regions as "critical points" that American troops may have to invade. (Quadrennial Defense Review Report, 9/30/01)

U.S. General Tommy Franks, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee early in 2002, supported these findings: "Sixty-eight percent of the world's proven oil reserves are found in the Gulf Region, and 43 percent of the world's petroleum exports pass through the Strait of Hormuz....Our ability to deploy forces and equipment quickly remains the linchpin for responding to contingencies...."

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made the link between U.S. energy policy and U.S. military policy very clear later in 2002 when he spoke to the House International Relations Committee: "Energy security is...national security."

2. Warnings and other proposals

All knowledgeable oil experts agree that world oil consumption will inevitably reach Hubbert's Peak and that world oil production will then decline irreversibly. The National Energy Policy does not discuss this expert consensus. It appears to assume that America's scientists have plenty of time in which to devise a new energy system and that in the meantime Americans can continue to consume more oil. Critics regard this view as short-sighted, even dangerous, and emphasize measures that would cut oil consumption and oil imports and invest more in the development of new technologies:

"Four key trends will dominate the future of American energy behavior," writes Michael Klare in Blood for Oil: "an increasing need for imported oil, a pronounced shift toward unstable and unfriendly suppliers in dangerous parts of the world; a greater risk of anti-American or civil violence, and rising competition for what will likely prove a diminishing supply pool. Clearly, the perils of dependency are growing more severe. Yet American leaders are trapped in their same old policy paralysis, proposing feeble steps to reduce our reliance on imported oil even as they acquiesce in our ever-increasing dependency."

During the past ten years global demand for oil has risen by almost a fifth, with the greatest increases coming from India and China, which recently passed Japan to become the world's second-largest consumer of crude oil." (John Cassidy, "Pump Dreams," The New Yorker, 10/11/2004)

"There is no doubt at all that the essence of the Hubbert Peak view is correct. It is possible...that the crisis won't occur until the next decade or even the one after that....We Americans are profligate users of energy. There are many ways in which we could reduce our consumption of fuel without abandoning our comfortable way of life....The real challenge—the challenge we would set for ourselves if we had courageous, visionary leadership—would be to kick the fossil fuel habit as soon as possible ....Unfortunately, our present national and international leadership is reluctant even to acknowledge that there is a problem....Civilization, as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels." (David Goodstein, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil)

"Each year that we fail to commit to serious energy research and development or fail to begin slowing the growth of energy demand through fuel efficiency...is another year in which our already unstable energy economy moves so much closer to the point of no return." (Paul Roberts, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World )

These and other specialists are convinced that sooner rather than later in this century an oil crisis will be upon the world. They call on world leaders to recognize the problem and they suggest a number of steps, both long- and short-range, to deal with it, including the following:

  • "The only energy sources we have are the sun, which is a nuclear fusion reactor; natural radioactive elements in the earth, which keep the interior of the planet hot; and man-made nuclear reactions in nuclear fission reactors and bombs. Every other form of energy is derived from those sources." Energy from tides is the only small exception. What's needed is serious research into "sophisticated technology that converts sunlight and nuclear energy efficiently into electricity for stationary uses, and produces hydrogen fuel or charges advanced batteries for mobile uses." (Goodstein) (Goodstein also advises international cooperation and investment in such research.)

  • "Reduce consumption of oil in transportation, which accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption: The key here is light-duty vehicles—automobiles, minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks....: improvement in the fuel efficiency of existing vehicles; second, the introduction of nonpetroleum fuels (especially ethanol) for existing engines; third, new and improved forms of automobile propulsion, especially hybrid (gas/electric) engines and hydrogen-powered fuel cells; and, fourth, the far more widespread use of mass transit." (Klare)

  • A tax on gasoline consumption to help finance proposals such as those above. Such a tax would also force car owners to drive less.

  • Stop highway construction. Build more and speedier rail lines. Improve and expand mass transit.

  • A much larger investment in renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power, a proposal popular with environmentalists.

There are problems with all proposals. For example: "Power generated from waves, windmills, and solar panels is weak, intermittent, and expensive....When it is cold or dark, solar panels don't produce energy; when it is calm wind turbines don't turn." (Cassidy)

But the biggest energy problems we face are:

  • Fossil fuels are the major cause of pollution and global warming.
  • There is a finite amount of oil to be pumped from the reservoirs of the world.
  • Unless experts on the subject are wrong, Hubbert's Peak will arrive sooner rather than later.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What proposals in the National Energy Policy make the most sense to you? Why? The least sense? Why? Why do you suppose that the National Energy Policy report does not discuss Hubbert's Peak?

3. How do you think the president and vice president would respond to Michael Klare's "four trends"?

4. Which proposals coming from critics make the most sense to you? Why?
The least? Why?


Suggested Classroom Activities

Discussion Group

Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Half of the groups are to imagine they have the opportunity to interview President Bush about his National Energy Policy; the other half are to interview Michael Klare about his "four trends." In each case, what would be the three most important questions the group would want to ask?

Then ask each group to report its questions to the whole class for examination and discussion. (In this connection, the teacher may find useful "the doubting game" section of Teaching Critical Thinking, which is available on this website.)

A Class Publication

Discussion of the three readings, the questions they raise, and the various proposals presented could lead to further class inquiry into U.S. and world energy problems. Among the subjects might be:

  • expansion and diversification of U.S. energy supplies, as proposed in the National Energy Policy

  • the potential for instability, political conflict and violence in major oil-producing regions such as the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea Basin, South America and Western Africa

  • the extensive use of U.S. troops for the protection of oil resources

  • U.S. oil-influenced policies toward corrupt and authoritarian governments

  • consumption of oil and other fossil fuels as the key factor in global warming

  • such technologies as hydrogen-powered fuel cells

  • such proposals as oil-drilling in Alaska; a federal gasoline tax; improved fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles, especially SUVs; or the elimination of highway construction

Following such inquiries and as a class project, students could produce a pamphlet, a newspaper, or magazine in which they report what they have learned and make policy recommendations. The publication might include competing, even conflicting, views or, possibly, a class consensus on what needs to be done. It could be distributed for reactions within the school, to the PTA, the school newspaper, the local newspaper, representatives and senators, the U.S. Department of Energy, the president.

A Debate

Organize a debate that could perhaps be the program for a school assembly. The topic:

Resolved: the National Energy Policy is America's best response to its energy problems and needs.

Participants in the debate will need to be more fully informed on the National Energy Policy. See the U.S. Department of Energy at doe.gov for further information. The DOE's Energy Information Administration is also useful (eia.doe.gov/).


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org