Deep Oil: The Technology, Risks, and Benefits of Offshore Oil Drilling

What You Need

Deep Oil: The Technology, Risks, and Benefits of Offshore Oil Drilling


To assess the risks and benefits of offshore drilling, paying particular attention to the role of science and technology in this process.


This lesson focuses on examining the role of technology in managing societal risks and benefits of obtaining a highly valued—and politically charged—asset: oil deposits buried deep below the ocean floor. By using a case study approach, it asks students to research the worst oil drilling platform accident in history, the April 20, 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast in which 11 lives were lost. It guides them to frame that information in terms of “complexity thinking”—that is, to reflect on how western economies are increasingly layered systems of individual, complex components that when combined, present many, many technological challenges and potential trade-offs with safety, and with long-term sustainability for short-term gains. Students will role-play a press conference as BP leaders answering questions from bloggers and engage in a debate on the pros and cons of Deep Oil. In these exercises, they will probe technological issues of design, systems engineering, and human interactions with technology and performance testing in the context of a disaster such as this.

Research suggests this topic is little explored in the literature. Classroom experience suggests two misconceptions that students have are: 1) there is one right answer and 2) there are only two sides to the issue—a false dichotomy the debate format inadvertently encourages. To avoid teaching these misconceptions, emphasize the nature of complexity—it’s a sphere not a line. That’s why solutions to this problem are not fast or easy. There are many variables, many modes of analysis, much room for creative problem solving. Framing this as a pro and con debate is just an exercise in critical thinking, not a faithful model of all issues involved.


Be mindful that oil policy tends to be a politically polarizing topic. Set ground rules at the outset to confine the discussion to the principles of risks and benefits that are broadly applicable to every technological pursuit. Do not get distracted by politics or personalities, though it is likely with this age group some students will want to go there and recast this as a “green” debate. With firm ground rules in place, background and engage students by having them watch a four-minute video of college students and professors applying some of the lessons learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska to the Gulf cleanup: Exxon Valdez Lessons Applied to Gulf Coast Cleanup.

At the end of the video, discuss as a class the questions the video raises to motivate knowledge acquisition and analysis about what went wrong in this complex technological system, and its short- and long-term impacts in the Gulf Coast and the world.

After initial comments, prompt students to go deeper by considering these questions throughout the unit:

  • Why are we drilling in such deep water in the first place?
  • Why is there now a push to drill off the coast of Alaska?
  • What became of the industry’s commitment to better clean-up technologies after the Exxon Valdez tragedy in 1989?
  • In the wake of Exxon Valdez, were any of those technologies ever developed? Were they used? And were they effective?
  • Who is responsible for the personal loss and suffering and environmental degradation of this accident? Eleven men doing their jobs died in this. Was the drilling technology they were given to use adequate to the task? Were they educated to use it correctly and safely? Did they understand the risks they were taking that technology made possible?
  • Is it fair for a society that demands more and cheaper oil—backed by corporate leaders and a government policy that belatedly invests in clean fuel alternatives—to now blame a single company of oil drillers for the accident? Or is it fair to blame the larger culture of oil exploration? Lax regulators?
  • How can individuals shape policy and practice in the wake of this disaster to prevent another? How can technology help assure this is accomplished?


This lesson will likely unfold over 3-5 days of consecutive class periods, culminating in a mock Press Conference in which students role-play BP executives, scientists, and journalist bloggers intent on explaining the issue to the public.

Day 1
On this day, students should develop their knowledge base by using Internet resources and other research to familiarize themselves with the issues of Deep Oil, focusing on the role of technology in mediating risks and benefits. To get things started, have your students use their Deep Oil student esheet to find resources that will help them understand the risks and benefits involved in offshore oil drilling. They should use these resources to help them answer the questions on the Deep Oil student sheet (you can find answers on the Deep Oil teacher sheet). Once students have completed the sheet, bring them back together for a class discussion.

Day 2
Divide the class into small groups of 4-6 students each, with each group designated the “Technology Team” representing the industry, BP. Their goal is to prepare answers for the public by explaining the disaster to bloggers, who report and distribute the responses on the Web. To prepare for this, the students should pool knowledge gained in Day 1 among their small groups and create a “Group Report” on the issue based on their combined research using the Group Report student sheet (you can find possible notes on the Group Report teacher sheet). They should analyze that information by taking turns in a role-play “Press Conference.” They should explain to a press corps of bloggers (the rest of the class) the details of the human-technological interaction in the BP spill, and how it can be improved.

Day 3
Now, you and your students should discuss the various Group Report answers to refine their understanding and mastery of the content.  Allow time for each group to revise its Group Report, in light of class discussion. This could be the last 30 minutes of Day 3, or the entire period of Day 4. Once the Final Group Report is prepared, the press conferences can begin.

The press conference format works like this:

  1. On Press Conference Day, each Tech Team is given five minutes in which they present an overview for two minutes, and then take questions and answers from the Press Corps for the remaining three.
  2. When Tech Team 1 is finished, students switch places. Tech Team 1 members sit at their desks while Tech Team 2 takes the podium to present for two minutes and do Q&A for three minutes.
  3. Depending on classroom resources, you can have a lot of fun with this. Presenters may make charts and graphs for visual display of data, PowerPoints, etc. Bloggers may have cameras and microphones, costumes, personas, etc.

If school resources exist, students could make a live podcast of this exercise for the school news Web. They could interview students in the hall in a “person on the street” format to get their concerns about the offshore drilling.


Stage a student debate by evenly dividing the class into two sides, or if the class is too big, break it into groups of two sides and have multiple debates over several days. The two sides are:

  • Risks of Offshore Drilling Outweigh the Benefits
  • Benefits of Offshore Drilling Outweigh the Risks

To prepare their arguments for the debate on whether or not offshore oil drilling is worth the risk, students should study the debating site Debate: US Offshore Oil Drilling.

In taking notes or forming statements of fact to structure their argument, each side might choose to start with a position quote they are “defending” or illustrating with facts from the online resources and other research, and examples from a website or two that supports their claim. You can use the Risks and Benefits Debate teacher sheet for an example. Students can use the Risks and Benefits Debate student sheet to help guide them in preparing their arguments.


You can help add to students’ knowledge they’ve developed of evaluating technology in terms of risk and benefits, and the importance of design and technology to controlling risk by guiding them through the Science NetLinks lesson, Risks and Benefits.

Students can deepen their analysis and understanding of technology, risk, and human reliance on sophisticated automated systems by reading an analysis of another crisis, the 2008 economic crisis. While reading, Is Economics a Science? from The American, A Magazine of Ideas, they should consider these questions:

  • Are there parallels to be drawn between the housing crisis and BP disaster?
  • If so, what comparisons can be made?
  • Take one of the sentences from the “Is Economics a Science?” and delete the word “economics” and substitute the phrase “offshore oil drilling.” What is the effect? What does it tell you about the interaction of humans and technology?

Extend the lessons learned from deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to the planned exploration and development of Arctic Ocean deep water oil reserves. Students can consult a report written in the wake of the Deep Horizon disaster:

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards