Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico

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'We (Americans) consume more than 20 per cent of the world's oil, but have less than two per cent of the world's oil reserves. And that's part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean because we're running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight.'

- President Barack Obama, 15 June 2010

On 20 April 2010, eleven workers died following an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig, situated in deep water in the Gulf of Mexico, several hundred kilometres south of the coast of Mississippi and Alabama. The explosion led to a number of leaks in a pipeline on the sea bed, around 1.5km below the surface.

The rig was contracted by BP, and measures to prevent a blowout and leak appear to have failed. As the rig sank to the sea bed, further leaks began from the riser pipe that originally led up to the rig.

The oil gushed out at a rate that was hard to calculate, but what soon became clear was that the scale of the 'leak' was unprecedented.

This week, the financial scale of the disaster was revealed, with the US Government asking for at least $20 billion compensation from BP. This led to a dramatic drop in the share price of the company.

Oil spill teaching ideas

Here are some ideas to get your KS3 / GCSE geography students thinking about the oil industry and the wider impacts of the spillage.

Hunt the oil

Oil is essential for modern life. It is the basis for the petrochemicals industry which produces the plastic which permeates our lives. Most school uniforms for example will be made from artificial fibres.

Students could be asked to play 'hunt the oil' and put a sticker on everything which started out as this non-renewable fossil fuel: from the carpets to the paint on the walls.

Dependence on oil

Our dependence on oil offers opportunities for students to begin to appreciate how they are connected to other people in remote locations. Where does oil come from? How many people are employed by the oil industry and in what roles? How much oil do different countries use in comparison to their size / how much they produce?

There is also a 'futures' element to this: what will happen when the oil runs out? What are the alternative sources of energy?

Drilling for oil

The endless search for more oil requires the more risky and technically difficult deep-water drilling that was involved here.

  • Where is oil found in the world?
  • Where have there been other incidents involving oil?
  • Why is an oil spill so damaging to the environment?


Students should also be asked to consider the social, economic and environmental consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For instance they could consider tourism, fisheries, wildlife and the health risks to those involved in the clean up operation.

Past incidents

Ask students to research previous oil incidents in the UK and abroad. Many teachers will be familiar with the Exxon Valdez incident, but it may be worth considering events such as the Torrey Canyon to remind students that this is not a recent problem.

  • What have been the world's worst incidents involving oil?

Website: Cool It - Geography of the world's largest oil spills

Stopping the leak

Students could be asked to assess the relative effectiveness of the measures that have been tried to contain the oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig, and prevent it from reaching the shoreline of the USA. They could perhaps be asked to come up with their own ideas, or identify other measures that weren't included in the original list. Their answers could be compared with the suggestions sent in to the BBC website.

Website: BBC - The oil spill: Your solutions

A life without plastic

Is it possible to live without plastic, and therefore with a reduced dependency on oil?

One blogger, Beth Terry (aka Fake Plastic Fish), is trying to live a life without plastic, and there is a useful series of graphs showing how she is managing to reduce her dependence on plastic. Students might be asked to think about how they might reduce their own plastic 'consumption'.

Website: Fake Plastic Fish

Transition Towns

A larger-scale version of the Fake Plastic Fish project is that of the Transition movement.

'A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university, island etc.) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction.'

Students could find out whether there is a transition town near to them, or perhaps prepare an 'energy descent' plan for how their community might attempt the changes that are required.

Website: Transition Network
Website: Vimeo - Transition Network videos


The scale of the oil spill is hard to appreciate for students who are not familiar with the size of the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, there is a useful web tool called 'If It Was My Home', put together by Andy Lintner from NOAA data.

Identify two places in the UK that are on either side of the slick, and then use a journey planning tool on Google Maps or AA Route Planner to work out how long it would take to 'drive across' the slick.

The issue of scale can also be related to money. How big is a barrel of oil? How much does one cost? How much is being spent on cleaning up the oil spill in America? Can BP cover the costs? Which leads nicely on to...


This useful BBC article outlines the significance of BP in the UK:

Website: BBC - Why is BP important to the UK economy?

Ask students to research the potential impact of the oil spill on: food prices / petrol prices / pensions / the UK economy.

Show your students the Forbes Global 2000 list, an up to date list of the world's biggest companies.

  • Where does BP sit?
  • How many companies in the top 20 are connected to the oil industry?
  • Why are oil companies worth so much money?

At the time of writing, the BBC published an article entitled 'BP drops out of BBC index of world's biggest firms' (17.06.10), further highlighting the company's decline in the wake of the oil spill.


The Gulf of Mexico is an area which is affected by hurricanes every year. What might be the impact of a hurricane on the oil affected area? Would a hurricane make the situation better or worse?

A useful factsheet has been produced by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

News Report / Debate

The oil spill might make a suitable topic for a 'news report' style activity, or possibly a debate. Ideas include:

News reports

  • The incident as breaking news, including maps and eye witness accounts
  • The environmental impact
  • The clean up operation
  • The effect on tourism in the area
  • A comparison with other oil spills - is this the worst one ever?


  • What alternative sources of energy are there and what are their pros and cons?
  • How can we 'end America's addiction to fossil fuels' (Obama)?
  • What should be the priorities of the clean-up operation? Why?
  • How could you prevent this from happening again?
  • Are there any positive outcomes from the spill? What are they?

Cardboard oil slicks

Contributed by GA member Beccy Pook

To introduce the oil spill I cut out black cardboard 'oil slicks' and put them on the desks. I then asked the students to write the spill effects on slips of paper and 'float' them on their oil spills. A class discussion followed where we discussed the consequences of the effects and related them to the current topics they were studying (Year 7 climate change and energy resources and Year 8 weather and climate - we had studied hurricane Katrina the week before).

The students enjoyed the discussion and came up with consequences for the economy and businesses as well as wildlife and a waste of precious resources.

Curriculum Links


BP is one of several huge trans-national companies whose wealth is dependent on the continued supply of 'black gold'. This also provides a connection with globalisation.

Most GCSE specifications have a relevant section on the potential impact of resource extraction on the environment, or the link with the production of energy. How reliant is the UK on oil for its energy needs?

Wind farms are one alternative to our continued reliance on oil, but they have often been controversial with residents.

The impact of decisions about wind energy are featured in the GA's KS3 Geography Teachers' Toolkit book Look At It This Way. Lesson 4 has a focus on changes in the landscape.

A level

Many A-level specifications have a section called 'technological fix' and also consider the 'energy gap' which will emerge as non-renewable energy resources are depleted.

There may also be discussions on the extent to which some countries are reliant on one major source of income, and the relationships between the governments of those countries and the oil companies.

Students should be made familiar with the concept of 'peak oil'.

Website: Wikipedia

This suggests that we are past the maximum rate of extraction of oil.

The impact of the use of these fossil fuels on the planet, including the climate could also be considered here. How are we moving towards a 'low carbon economy'?



The BBC has created a special site called 'Oil and Water' which contains a wealth of information and news for anyone needing background information.

An interactive map shows the progress of the oil slick (slide to see the spread of the oil) while another shows the possible ways of stopping the oil (which includes a full photo story of the incident, along with very informative animations showing how the leak occurred).


The company has produced a Gulf of Mexico Response website to provide detailed and up to date information about the response from their point of view. Interestingly, BP paid for advertising space on Google so that anyone searching for information on the incident will see a sponsored link at the top of the results page taking them through to BP's response site.

It might also be useful to follow BP's Twitter account, which provides the most up-to-date information on the unfolding story.


A round up of stories was produced by Edexcel and is available on their community forum.

Energy Kids

This site, produced by the US Energy Information Administration, explains a variety of energy-related topics in a simple format for children. It also includes a range of classroom resources which may be useful for teachers in the UK.

World Without Oil

This online game simulates the first 32 weeks of a global oil shortage and is accompanied by a wide range of resources, many suitable for use in the classroom.

'At heart WWO is very simple. What if an oil crisis started on April 30, 2007 - what would happen? How would the lives of ordinary people change? Let's play "what if?" and find out.'

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