Petroleum and the Environment: Teaching about Petroleum and the Future of Energy Resources

By Hudson, Travis; Camphire, Geoffrey | The Science Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Petroleum and the Environment: Teaching about Petroleum and the Future of Energy Resources


Hudson, Travis, Camphire, Geoffrey, The Science Teacher


Your students live in a world that is powered by petroleum and other energy resources to an unsurpassed degree. But do they know where all the energy that they readily use on a daily basis comes from? Will they know where to find it tomorrow?

The United States today consumes more than 24% of all the energy used in the world--and about 60% of this energy is provided by petroleum (oil and natural gas). The availability of abundant, inexpensive energy is the main reason that our nation's standard of living leads the world. Americans can travel just about anywhere anytime, run all types of appliances and electronic gadgets, and remain comfortable regardless of the weather outside. It's a lifestyle shared by relatively few of the world's inhabitants.

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But environmental issues and concerns accompany both the production and consumption of petroleum, as your students should understand. To help students explore this topic further, we have developed the poster insert in this issue of The Science Teacher. The poster is distributed with Petroleum and the Environment, part of the American Geological Institute's Environmental Awareness series of booklets covering major topics of environmental and societal concern and demonstrating the complexity and interconnection of natural systems (www.agiweb.org/environment/publications).

Petroleum and the Environment provides an introduction to the major environmental concerns associated with petroleum exploration, production, transportation, and use. If today's students are to have a role in decisions to meet the energy demands of tomorrow, they must understand petroleum's importance, its sources, how it is processed and used, the policies and regulations designed to safeguard natural resources, and global energy needs.

After all, the world's people demand more petroleum every day. Population continues to increase, and the economies of some highly populous countries are expanding. For example, China became the world's second-largest consumer of oil in early 2004, when this nation's demand passed six million barrels a day. China's increasing oil consumption is considered a major reason that oil prices (not corrected for inflation) recently reached all-time highs.

From age to age

Students should understand the history of energy resource use--and how one leading fuel historically has been replaced by another. The age of wood gave way to the age of coal, which in turn gave way to the age of oil. Around the world, the 20th century generally is considered the "Oil Age." How long will the Oil Age continue? The answer depends on when global oil production peaks and starts to decline.

The decline occurs when a finite nonrenewable resource such as oil cannot be produced in the amounts needed to meet demand. There is just not enough of the resource left to continue producing the amounts that are needed. Estimates of the peak of global oil production range from periods as early as 2003 to sometime between 2010 and 2020. Regardless of which estimation is closest, you and your students are likely to live long past the end of the Oil Age. …

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