David C. Kopaska-Merkel*, Brian J. O'Neill**, and Sheila Kopaska-Merkel***
*Geological Survey of Alabama, P.O. Box O, Tuscaloosa, AL 35486-9780
**Shell Offshore Inc., P.O. Box 61933, New Orleans, LA 70161
***1300 Kicker Rd., Tuscaloosa, AL 35404

Level: Grades 3 - 7

Estimated Time Required: 15-30 minutes to discuss the uses of petroleum, up to one hour for the students to write their essays or stories.

Anticipated Learning Outcomes


Petroleum literally means rock oil; oil that comes from rock. Petroleum is formed from organic matter (plants, animals and microbes) that is buried deep below the Earth's surface by layer upon layer of sediment (sand, mud, etc.). Over long periods of time the organic material is transformed by heat and pressure into crude oil. Petroleum is lighter than water and so it moves upward through the ground water, which fills the tiny holes and crevices in the rocks, until it reaches an impermeable layer where the holes are too small for the droplets to pass through. There the oil remains until it is discovered by drilling a well.

Oil wells are drilled as deep as six miles into the Earth to search for petroleum. These wells can cost millions of dollars to drill, yet drilling is done because petroleum is a valuable natural resource. Although the major use of petroleum is as a fuel, (gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil), and petroleum and natural gas are often used to generate electricity, there are many other uses. Here are some of the ways petroleum is used in our every day lives. All plastic is made from petroleum and plastic is used almost everywhere: in cars, houses, toys, computers and clothing. Asphalt used in road construction is a petroleum product as is the synthetic rubber in the tires. Paraffin wax comes from petroleum, as do fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, detergents, phonograph records, photographic film, furniture, packaging materials, surfboards, paints, and artificial fibers used in clothing, upholstery, and carpet backing (see the included list for more examples). Helium, sulfur, and other valuable materials are produced from oil wells along with petroleum itself. Millions of people around the world are employed to find or produce petroleum, ship and refine it, and manufacture and market the many products made from it.

There are problems with petroleum that result from its use. In transporting oil, accidents do happen. Oil spills can kill plants and animals and soil beaches. Spills may happen closer to home: people often dump used oil from vehicle engines onto the ground or into open drains instead of taking it to a recycling center. This causes pollution. Plastic objects and containers are thrown away, but the plastic does not decay quickly. It stays around and may sometimes injure or kill wildlife: plastic rings from "six packs" can choke birds and animals; an action as simple as cutting each of the rings with scissors before throwing it away can save animal lives! Plastic bottles thrown overboard from ships and boats wash up on beaches. Thoughtless disposal of plastic causes problems for us all. How can we use petroleum products more sensibly in our own lives?

The burning of fossil fuels (gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, natural gas and coal) produces the gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as a by-product. Some scientists theorize that adding excess CO2 levels to the atmosphere could cause global warming: light energy from the sun is converted into heat energy on the Earth. Some of this heat is radiated back out into space. CO2 in the atmosphere traps some of this heat energy on the Earth, thus contributing to global warming. This theory has not been proven, but if the burning of fossil fuels does contribute to global warming, the results could be catastrophic. If the temperature rose high enough, the glaciers and ice caps could melt raising the level of the oceans and flooding coastal cities like New York, Miami, New Orleans, and Venice.

Some people would like to prevent the pollution that the use of petroleum products can cause by doing without petroleum altogether. Is this possible? What would it be like to live in a world without petroleum?



  1. Discuss with the students the uses of petroleum products. Bring examples to the classroom, or ask the students to bring examples. Be sure that all of the students understand how widespread petroleum products are in our society.
  2. Discuss pollution related to the use of petroleum. Guide the students to an understanding that the use of petroleum has environmental consequences. Are there things they can do in their own lives to prevent or decrease these consequences?
  3. The students' work sheets include two illustrations: a house containing common household items made with petroleum products and an identical house from which all items made with petroleum have been removed. Ask the students to draw in the second house non-petroleum replacements for the missing items. Are there always alternatives? The students can use this part of the exercise to warm up for part 4. If time is short, either part 3 or 4 of the exercise could be eliminated.
  4. Have students creatively express their own ideas about how the world would be different if there were no petroleum products in it. If they seem to have some trouble getting started, make a few suggestions. Encourage them to draw or paint and to write essays, stories, or poems. If you want to focus the scope of the students' creativity, you could, for example, ask the students to think about what would be different in their house or their school if all petroleum products were removed. Suggest also that they propose substitutes for the missing petroleum products they feel they would be unable to do without.

Results and Discussion

  1. After the students finish the exercise, ask them to describe what their world would be like without petroleum. Hearing the other students' ideas will help them to a better understanding of the role of petroleum in our lives.
  2. Another good thing to discuss at the end of the exercise is pollution. Are there petroleum products the students are willing to live without in order to prevent pollution? What ideas can the students suggest to deal with pollution problems related to the use of petroleum? Can we use petroleum more wisely?


The list of products made from petroleum is modified from the American Petroleum Institute's (API) "Petrochemical Products" list and from Laurie Sachtleben's article "Products from Petroleum" (Chevron World magazine, Winter, 1990).

References and Recommended Additional Material

GERDING, Mildred, (ed)., 1979, Fundamentals of Petroleum: Petroleum Extension
Service, University of Texas at Austin, 247 p.

LEWIS, Alfred, 1966, The New World of Petroleum: New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 80 p.

PRESS, Frank, and SIEVER, Raymond, 1982, Earth, 3rd ed.: W.H. Freeman and Co., San
Francisco, 613 p. This book contains an excellent summary of petroleum geology
written for college freshmen.

VIDEO: "Bottom of the Barrel": 3-2-1- Contact, 1991, Children's Television
Workshop, New York, NY.

Products Made from Oil

 Ink  Dishwashing liquids  Paint brushes  Telephones
 Toys  Unbreakable dishes  Insecticides  Antiseptics
 Dolls  Car sound insulation  Fishing lures  Deodorant
 Tires  Motorcycle helmets  Linoleum  Sweaters
 Tents  Refrigerator linings  Paint rollers  Floor wax
 Shoes  Electrician's tape  Plastic wood  Model cars
Glue  Roller-skate wheels  Trash bags  Soap dishes
 Skis  Permanent press clothes  Hand lotion  Clothesline
 Dyes  Soft contact lenses  Shampoo  Panty hose
 Cameras  Food preservatives  Fishing rods  Oil filters
 Combs  Transparent tape  Anesthetics  Upholstery
 Dice  Disposable diapers  TV cabinets  Cassettes
 Mops  Sports car bodies  Salad bowls  House paint
 Purses  Electric blankets  Awnings  Ammonia
 Dresses  Car battery cases  Safety glass  Hair curlers
 Pajamas  Synthetic rubber  VCR tapes  Eyeglasses
 Pillows  Vitamin capsules  Movie film  Ice chests
 Candles  Rubbing alcohol  Loudspeakers  Ice buckets
 Boats  Ice cube trays  Credit cards  Fertilizers
 Crayons  Insect repellent  Water pipes  Toilet seats
 Caulking  Roofing shingles  Fishing boots  Life jackets
 Balloons  Shower curtains  Garden hose  Golf balls
 Curtains  Plywood adhesive  Umbrellas  Detergents
 Milk jugs  Beach umbrellas  Rubber cement  Sun glasses
 Putty  Faucet washers  Cold cream  Bandages
 Tool racks  Antihistamines  Hair coloring  Nail polish
 Slacks  Drinking cups  Guitar strings  False teeth
 Yarn  Petroleum jelly Toothpaste  Golf bags
 Roofing  Tennis rackets  Toothbrushes  Perfume
 Luggage  Wire insulation  Folding doors  Shoe polish
 Fan belts  Ballpoint pens  Shower doors  Cortisone
 Carpeting  Artificial turf  Heart valves  LP records
 Lipstick  Artificial limbs  Hearing aids  Vaporizers
 Aspirin  Shaving cream  Wading pools  Parachutes

NAME: ________________________

Why Do We Need Petroleum?

Your teacher will discuss some uses of petroleum, as well as some problems caused by the use of petroleum. Here are a few things you or your family come into contact with every day that are made from petroleum: gasoline, plastic (everything made from plastic comes from petroleum), artificial rubber, candle wax, fertilizer, detergents, photographic film, furniture, packaging materials, surfboards, paints, protective gloves, raincoats, and umbrellas. Petroleum is sometimes used to generate electricity. Helium, sulfur, and other valuable materials are produced from oil wells along with the petroleum itself. Millions of people around the world work to find and produce petroleum, ship and refine it, make things out of it, and sell these many products.


1. This worksheet includes pictures of two houses. The houses are identical except everything made with petroleum has been taken out of the second one. On this picture, draw replacements NOT made with petroleum products for the missing items.

2. Is it hard to find petroleum-free replacements for some of the missing items?

Do we need to have all these things?


3. Use your imagination to think of a world without ANY petroleum in it. Would you like to live in such a world? What would you have to give up? What would be better? Write an essay, story, or poem or draw a picture illustrating a this petroleum-free world you have imagined, and what it would be like.

When you are done, share your ideas. Did some of your friends think of things you hadn't thought about? Have you changed you mind about whether or not you would like to live in a world without petroleum? Can we use the petroleum we have more wisely?

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