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The Alaska Pipeline
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

A worker walks through the pipe yard The Alaska Pipeline offers insights into topics in American history including large-scale engineering projects, natural resource management, the American wilderness, life in Alaska, Native American land claims, energy sources and policy, infrastructure planning and development, and more. Use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: geography, civics, history, and economics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

Geography | Civics | History | Economics

  1. The world oil market.
    How many of the world's largest producers and consumers of oil can you name? Working with a partner, but without consulting any outside sources of information, make two lists: the five countries that you think produce the most oil, and the five countries that you think consume the most oil. Check your answers against these lists prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy of the world's largest oil producers and oil consumers.

    Next, use the information in these two lists to prepare two world maps: one showing the top ten oil producers and the other showing the top ten oil consumers. Compare the two maps: which countries, if any, are shown on both maps?

    Finally, select one of the top ten oil producers or consumers and find a recent newspaper, magazine, or online article discussing some issue related to that country's oil production or consumption. Share it with the class and explain how it shows the importance of oil to that country.

  2. The ongoing search for oil.
    Read about the successful search for oil on Alaska's North Slope, which led to the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Now find out more about oil exploration from the Web site for the PBS documentary series " Extreme Oil," and explore that site's interactive feature examining the pros and cons of different methods of extracting oil.

    As the interactive feature notes, large untapped oil reserves are thought to exist in tar-sand deposits in places like Canada and Venezuela. Yet getting at these reserves would be costly and would scar the landscape. Given these facts, do you think a large-scale effort should be made to obtain this oil to meet the world's rising energy needs? Or, alternatively, would you prefer greater use of alternative energy sources and the adoption of measures to conserve oil -- for example, doubling the price of gasoline? Take a class vote on the issue and have volunteers give the reasons for their vote.

Geography | Civics | History | Economics

  1. A.N.W.R., the new Alaska oil debate.
    Just as the proposal to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline sparked a long and intense debate in the 1970s, the recent proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (A.N.W.R.) has created significant controversy.

    Read these arguments for and against drilling in A.N.W.R. Then search the Web for other views on the A.N.W.R. debate from sources such as the White House (which supports drilling) and the Sierra Club (which opposes it).

    Now, working with a partner, compare the A.N.W.R. debate with the pipeline debate more than three decades ago. List three ways in which the two debates are similar, and three ways in which the debates are different. Compare your lists with your classmates, and then vote on whether you think Congress will ultimately approve the A.N.W.R. proposal.

  2. A gain or loss for Alaska Natives?
    While Alaska Natives had long-standing land claims, it wasn't until oil was discovered in Alaska in 1968 that real progress began toward a settlement of those claims, as well as an agreement on how Natives would benefit from the oil revenues.

    If you were an Alaska Native, what would your position have been on the debate over the Trans-Alaska pipeline? Would you have supported the pipeline as a way to improve Natives' lives and opportunities, or opposed the pipeline as a threat to Natives' traditions? What changes -- both good and bad -- would you have expected it to bring to Alaska?

    Hold a mock hearing among Alaska Natives on this issue, and have each student give a three-minute speech on his or her view of the pipeline. Then hold a vote on whether to endorse the pipeline.

Geography | Civics | History | Economics

  1. Balancing energy needs and the environment.
    During the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was growing interest in the United States both in protecting the environment and in finding new sources of energy. The tensions between these two goals had a major impact on the Trans-Alaska pipeline project.

    To explore these tensions, create three parallel timelines covering the period from 1960 to the present. The first timeline should trace the growing interest in protecting the environment, starting with the 1962 publication of the book Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, and including events such as the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The second timeline should list events related to the nation's growing need for reliable energy sources -- unrest in the Middle East, the creation of OPEC and its oil boycott, the rising number of American autos, and so on. The third timeline, based on the timeline of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, should list the most important events in the building and operation of the pipeline.

    Once you are done, compare the three timelines side by side as a class and discuss how the growing pressures regarding both environmental concerns and energy needs affected the pipeline project. How might things have turned out differently if one or both pressures had not been present -- for example, if the environmental movement had not emerged during the 1960s but the need for energy had grown, or vice versa?

  2. Is the pipeline still safe?
    Though not the longest pipeline in the world, the Trans-Alaska pipeline is one of the most challenging such projects ever completed. To learn more about how the pipeline was built and how it works, read this overview of the technology used in the project and then explore three interactive features on choosing the safest pipeline designs to use, welding the pieces of the pipeline together, and pumping oil through the 800-mile pipeline.

    Early in 2006, a leak caused by corrosion in the pipeline led to a significant oil spill, creating concerns about the condition of the three-decade-old pipeline. Review the materials at this Web site from Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation about the spill and the response to it.

    Based on what you have learned about the pipeline, do you think this spill -- as well as the much larger 1989 spill from the supertanker Exxon Valdez -- mean that the pipeline should be shut down? Or do the gains from the pipeline exceed its risks? Express your opinion in a letter to the editor of 150-200 words, making your arguments as concrete and convincing as possible.

Geography | Civics | History | Economics

  1. America and the automobile.
    A significant part of the oil Americans consume is used for gasoline. With the number of vehicles on the road continuing to increase, are Americans making any progress in consuming gasoline more efficiently? Conduct your own investigation of this issue by polling friends, family, and neighbors on the following questions:

    • What gas mileage does your vehicle get: less than 10 miles per gallon, 11-20 miles per gallon, 21-30 miles per gallon, 31-40 miles per gallon, or more than 40 miles per gallon?

    • How important a factor was gas mileage in your decision to buy this vehicle? Group the answers on a scale from 1 ("Not important at all") to 5 ("The most important factor").

    • If you bought this vehicle to replace another vehicle, how does its gas mileage compare with the mileage of that older vehicle: better, about the same, or worse?

    • How important a factor will gas mileage be when you buy your next vehicle? Group the answers on a scale from 1 ("Not important at all") to 5 ("The most important factor").

    • In the past six months, have you cut down on the amount of driving you do in order to save gasoline?

    Each student should poll at least three persons on these questions. Tally the results obtained by the entire class and then create a graph for each question showing the results. Post the graphs side by side and analyze them as a class: what do they tell you about Americans' gasoline consumption habits?

  2. Oil's many daily uses.
    Powering automobiles is only one of the dozens of ways in which Americans use petroleum every day. Conduct a class investigation to find as many daily uses of petroleum and petroleum-based products as you can. Then, use this information to create an exhibit entitled "Daily Life in the Age of Petroleum." The exhibit can include examples of petroleum-based objects, photographs of daily activities that require petroleum, a schedule of a "typical" person showing the many times during the day in which the person uses a petroleum-based product, a photograph of store shelves showing a variety of petroleum-based products, and so on.

    Invite other classes to view the exhibit. What did they learn from it?

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