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Oil Crisis: What Would You Do?
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will understand the multiple dimensions of the role of oil in the economies and politics of both the United States and the Middle East. They will also learn about the costs and benefits of maintaining U.S. dependence on oil and of developing alternative energy sources.

Grade level



NCSS standards

Time estimate
Three 45-minute periods, with homework

  • Part 1: Introduce scenario, assign roles, homework assignment
  • Part 2: Presentation, voting
  • Part 3: Develop sound bites

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

  • Access to Internet and/or library resources
  • PowerPoint, presentation boards (optional)

Lesson Plan

Part 1

  • Read or provide printed copies of the following scenario to students:

    Hypothetical Scenario:
    It is May 2004 -- the beginning of the summer travel season in the United States. Despite the efforts of the United States to help broker a peace accord, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is continuing. A group of Middle Eastern countries, including some of the OPEC member states, is threatening to place an embargo on oil to the United States in order to voice its members' discontent with America's ongoing financial support for Israel. This could result in the price of a barrel of oil quadrupling -- costs that would be passed on to American consumers, with everything from increased prices at the gas pump to higher-priced airline tickets and home heating oil.

    The U.S. government must assess this crisis. Many in Congress fear that the American economy will be devastated if the embargo goes into effect. In addition to the problems that are presented by the OPEC member states, there is also growing protest by environmental groups in the United States who demand that the nation find cleaner sources of energy. These groups believe that the continued dependence on oil will likely draw the United States into another costly war in the Middle East and will further devastate both the environment and the population of the region, as well as result in a loss of U.S. lives and continue to pollute our country.

  • Students will become members of Congress. Assign them to two different groups of unequal numbers. For example, have 13 students in one group and 11 in another. This may be important as the lesson develops.

    • One group will take the position that, in light of this crisis, the United States should significantly reduce or eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. We should instead find other ways to meet our energy consumption needs, such as solar power, hydroelectric power, and alternative fuels

    • The second group will take the position that the United States should negotiate with OPEC members to ensure that we have continued access to cheap oil. This group argues that if we don't negotiate with OPEC, the oil industry, which employs tens of thousands of Americans, will be devastated, and that any new energy resources will be expensive to develop, test, and market, thus undermining the economy.

  • Both teams must include in their solution a way of addressing the concerns of domestic interest groups (including oil companies, environmental groups, industry, consumers, etc.).

  • Each team should brainstorm its issue and conduct research. The Resources section provides a starting point for research. Teams' findings should be summarized in a two-to-three-page paper that includes the following components:

    • Statement of the problem

    • A clearly formulated position on the issue

    • A framework for a solution, including a projection of the costs and benefits, both short-term and long-term; how long this solution would be viable; and why this solution is the best

  • Questions for each group to consider:

    • Should the United States withdraw its support of Israel to secure access to oil? Why or why not?

    • Is there anything we can offer OPEC and other countries that might induce them to keep the supply of oil flowing?

    • Is it better to use a "carrot" (e.g., humanitarian aid) or a "stick" (threaten military action) in order to get what we want? What are the pros and cons of each approach?

    • What will happen in the short term to the U.S. economy if we no longer have cheap oil? What industries will suffer? How will Americans react when they can no longer drive their SUVs because gasoline prices have risen to unprecedented heights? What will become of the industries that rely on oil, such as trucking and air travel?

    • What impact will an extended oil embargo have on the livelihoods of people in the Middle East?

    • What are the costs and benefits of developing other sources of oil?

    • What are the costs and benefits of developing sources of energy, such as nuclear power, natural gas, solar energy, etc?

Part 2

  • After each group has developed its own proposal, they will present their arguments in a Congressional debate, leading to a vote on the issue of how to resolve this conflict with OPEC. The presentations may incorporate PowerPoint, presentation boards, or other media.

  • Because the groups are of unequal size (i.e., there are more students in one group than the other), if they were to vote along straight "party lines," the outcome would be obvious. Each side, however, must attempt to identify members of the other side who may be less committed to their point of view. These "swing votes" could change the outcome.

  • Have students break into smaller groups in an attempt to identify and persuade these potential swing voters to change their votes.

  • Take a vote on the issue, and announce the outcome.

Part 3

  • As after any controversial vote in Congress, the press and the people around the country want to know how their representatives voted and why they cast the vote that they did. Each student should make a one-minute presentation (as if to a television camera) or write a short paragraph that presents a "sound bite" explaining their vote. If they changed their vote and went against their original "party," they should explain their reasons for doing this as well.


  • How well can the student articulate the multiple dimensions of the role of oil in the economy and politics of the United States?

  • How well can the student explain the impact of an oil embargo on the economies and politics of the Middle East?

  • How complete is the student's argument for the issue investigated? Does it cover all of the questions?

  • Can the student clearly articulate why he or she voted a particular way?


Global Connections Essays:

Internet Resources:

Related Activities:

Extension activity

The Gulf War between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition was fought more than a decade ago, but the long-term effects of this conflict are still felt by many, both in the region and even in the United States. Invite students to consider the effects this war had on people and the environment within the region and outside of it. Using the resources cited here as well as others, ask students to express their thoughts on the consequences of war on the natural and human resources of a country or region. Using the Gulf War as an example, what happened, and how many different areas of life did it affect? Who/what seems to have lost the most? Who/what seems to have gained the most?

NCSS standards

Production, distribution, and consumption

  • Explain how the scarcity of productive resources (human, capital, technological, and natural) requires the development of economic systems to make decisions about how goods and services are to be produced and distributed.

  • Analyze the role that supply and demand, prices, incentives, and profits play in determining what is produced and distributed in a competitive market system.

  • Distinguish between the domestic and global economic systems, and explain how the two interact.

  • Apply knowledge of production, distribution, and consumption to the analysis of a public issue such as the consumption of energy and devise an economic plan for accomplishing a socially desirable outcome related to that issue.

Global connections

  • Analyze the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to persistent contemporary and emerging global issues such as health, security, resource allocation, economic development, and environmental quality.

  • Analyze the relationships and tensions between national sovereignty and global interests in such matters as territory, economic development, nuclear and other weapons, use of natural resources, and human rights concerns.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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