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Oil: Classroom Activities

Consumption of Oil in the United States


To learn about the consumption of oil in the United States.

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Background Information

Petroleum provides fuel to run our vehicles, cook our food, heat our homes, and generate electricity. It is also used in plastics, medicines, food items, and countless other products, from aspirin to umbrellas and even lipstick. We use many oil products as synthetic alternatives to natural materials, including synthetic rubber instead of natural rubber, and detergent instead of soap. Oil also gives us entirely new, unique materials such as nylon.

The increasingly popularity of cars and trucks in the 20th century has led to the rising demand for oil over the past 150 years. The value of oil for transportation lies in the potential chemical energy of gasoline, which is separated from oil. In an automobile engine, the gasoline is ignited and its chemical energy is transformed into thermal energy. The heat energy released in the engine cylinders causes a crankshaft to rotate, which turns the wheels of the car. In this way, heat energy from the ignited gasoline is converted into mechanical energy.

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Activity Overview

Groups of students examine data about oil use as a percentage of total energy use in the United States over the past 150 years. They graph the data and look for trends.

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Materials and Equipment

ruler, colored pencils.

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  1. Hand out the following table to students. Alternatively, project it for the class to see.
    United States Oil Use (% of Total Energy Use)
    Year Oil (%) Year Oil (%)
    2000 38 1925 18
    1995 38 1920 12
    1990 39 1915 14
    1985 39 1910 11
    1980 43 1905 8
    1975 44 1900 4
    1970 42 1895 4
    1965 42 1890 4
    1960 43 1885 1
    1955 42 1880 3
    1950 38 1875 0
    1945 30 1870 0
    1940 30 1865 0
    1935 27 1860 0
    1930 24 1855 0
  2. Ask students to plot the data on a graph. Make sure they include a title, a key, and a scale.
  3. Have the students answer the following:
    1. Describe any trends in the graph.
      The overall trend is for increasing percentage of total energy use. The steepest rise occurred from about 1905 to about 1930. This was probably due to the increase in gasoline-powered motor vehicles. After reaching a peak around 1955 to 1980, they decline slightly. This is because of the increased use of alternative energy sources.
    2. Has the United States ever met all of its energy needs using oil?
      The percentage of total energy use has never even approached 100%.

Part B: Petroleum Consumption by Sector

  1. Hand out the following graph on Petroleum Consumption by Sector in the United States. Alternatively project it for the class to see. The graph can also be accessed at the following U.S. Department of Energy website.
  1. Have students describe the patterns of consumption over time for each of the four sectors.
    The transportation sector has the greatest consumption of petroleum. This sector also increased the fastest during the 60-year period. The industrial sector peaked in 1979 and then declined. By 2005, it had nearly returned to its peak level. In the residential and commercial sector consumption doubled between 1950 and 1974. It declined between 1974 and 1980 and has remained nearly constant since then. The electric utilities sector has always been the lowest of the four sectors, with peak in the late 1970s.
  2. Have students answer the following:
    1. For which sector has consumption increased the most since 1949? Why?
      The transportation sector has had by far the greatest increases since 1949. The population of the United States grew steadily as did the population of motorized vehicles.
    2. What purposes do you think residential and commercial uses include? Why do you think this sector declined?
      The residential and commercial sector use petroleum the heat buildings. Two factors could have led to the decline: increased energy efficiency or to switching to other sources of fuel e.g. coal, for electricity production.

Part C: Production, Consumption, and Imports of Oil

  1. 1. Provide copies of the following table that shows trends in oil production every 3 years from 1954 -2008. Alternatively, project the table for the whole class.
    United States Petroleum Production, Imports, and
    Total Consumption from 1954 to 2008
    Year Total U.S. Wells
    Total U.S. Production
    (thousand barrels/day)
    Total Foreign Imports
    (thousand barrels/day)
    Total U.S. Consumption(thousand barrels/day)
    1954 511 7030 1052 8082
    1957 569 7980 1574 9554
    1960 591 7960 1815 9775
    1963 589 8640 2123 10,763
    1966 583 9580 2573 12,153
    1969 542 10,830 3166 13,996
    1972 508 11,180 4741 15,921
    1975 500 10,010 6056 16,066
    1978 517 10,270 8363 18,633
    1981 557 10,180 5996 16,176
    1984 621 10,510 5437 15,947
    1987 620 9940 6678 16,618
    1990 602 8910 8018 16,928
    1993 584 8580 8620 17,200
    1996 574 8290 9478 17,768
    1999 546 7731 10,852 18,583
    2002 529 7626 11530 19,156
    2005 498 6895 13,714 20,609
    2008 526 6734 12,915 19,649
  2. Ask students to make a graph to show domestic production, imports, and consumption for the period 1954 -2008. Leave enough space after 2008 to extrapolate the data for an additional 20 years.
  3. Have students answer the following for the period shown by the graph:
    1. changes in domestic production over time.
      Domestic production increased from 1954 and peaked in 1972. After that time, petroleum production has seen an overall decrease.
    2. changes in petroleum imports over time.
      Petroleum imports increased from 1954 to 2008.
    3. changes in total consumption over time.
      Total petroleum consumption increased from 1954 to 1978, then decreased slightly, and increased from 1984 to 2005.
  4. Ask students in what year did imports begin to exceed production?
    In 1993, the United States began to import more petroleum than it produced.
  5. Have students compare the contribution of domestic production to consumption in 1954 and 2008.
    In 1954, nearly 87% of total petroleum consumption in the United States was met by domestic production.
    In 2008, about 34% of total petroleum consumption in the United States was met by domestic production.
  6. Ask students to calculate the consumption of oil per capita for 1954 when the population was 163 million and for 2008 when it reached 304 million. Ask students to account for differences in the rate of population growth and consumption.
    In 1954: (7030 thousand barrels per day + 1052 thousand barrels per day)/(163 million persons) = 0.050 barrels per person per day.
    In 2008: (6734 thousand barrels per day + 12,915 thousand barrels per day)/(304 million persons) = 0.065 barrels per person per day.
  7. Ask students to calculate average well production in 1954 and 2008.
    In 1954, 511 thousand wells produced 7030 thousand barrels, so the average production per well was: (7030 thousand barrels)/(511 thousand wells) = 13.8 barrels per well.
    In 2008, the same figure was 12.8 barrels per well.
  8. Ask students how will the future look? Have them extrapolate their data and through to 2030. Have them justify their reasoning.
    Answers will vary. Students may conclude that future demand will rise, if only because population will continue to increase. They may also conclude that domestic production will continue to decline and foreign imports will continue to rise. Eventually, total foreign and domestic production will have to decrease, as world petroleum reserves are drawn down.
  9. Have students describe future consumption for 2020 and 2030 using their graph.
    Answers will vary depending upon how students do their extrapolations.
  10. Have students describe the factors that might cause the future to differ from their prediction?
    Answers will vary. Students may refer to the following: state of the economy, production and pricing of domestic and foreign producers, population growth, and energy conservation measures, new technologies.

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