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CNN Classroom Edition: We Were Warned - Out of Gas

  • Story Highlights
  • Examine the impact that disruptions to oil supplies could have on America
  • Explore the benefits and drawbacks of alternative energy sources
  • Consider the possible impact of oil prices on alternative energy policies
  • Evaluate potential strategies for decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil
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(CNN Student News) -- Record the CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: We Were Warned: Out of Gas when it airs commercial-free on Monday, June 16, 2008, from approximately 4:10 - 5:00 a.m. ET on CNN. (A short feature begins at 4:00 a.m. and precedes the program.)

Program Overview

It is September 2009. A Category 5 hurricane roars through Houston, destroying oil refineries, drilling platforms and pipelines -- the complex system that provides a quarter of our nation's daily fuel supply. Soon after, terrorists attack two key oil installations in Saudi Arabia, the world's largest supplier. In the days and weeks that follow, gasoline prices hit record highs, food prices soar as trucks cannot afford to make deliveries, and Americans begin to realize that their very way of life is in peril.

In We Were Warned: Out of Gas, CNN's Frank Sesno explores the potential ripple effects of this frightening scenario. The events depicted are hypothetical, but oil experts believe the scenario is entirely plausible. His interviews with energy experts reveal that we are nearing the point at which the world, led by the U.S. and China, will begin to consume more oil than can be pumped from the ground and the oceans. Tracking the global race to find new pools of oil, Sesno also considers the viability of alternative fuels, such as ethanol, which is used for nearly 40 percent of Brazil's transportation fuel. Throughout his investigation, Sesno tries to find out whether any of these ventures can solve our looming energy crisis or whether we are already too late.

Grade Level: 7 -12, College

Subject Areas: U.S. History, Current Events, Earth Science, Physical Science and Technology

Objectives: The CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: We Were Warned: Out of Gas and its corresponding discussion questions and activities challenge students to:

  1. Examine America's reliance on oil and the impact that disruptions to oil supplies could have on our way of life;
  2. Explore the benefits and drawbacks of alternative energy sources;
  3. Consider the impact that oil prices could have on the pursuit of alternative energy policies;
  4. Evaluate potential strategies for decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Curriculum Connections

Geography Physical Systems

Standard 7: Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth's surface

Level III Grade : 6-8

Benchmark 2: Knows the processes that produce renewable and nonrenewable resources (e.g., fossil fuels, hydroelectric power, soil fertility)

Environment and Society

Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment

Level III Grade : 6-8

Benchmark 4: Understands the environmental consequences of both the unintended and intended outcomes of major technological changes in human history (e.g., the effects of automobiles using fossil fuels)

Don't Miss

McREL: Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education (Copyright 2000 McREL) is published online by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (, 2550 S. Parker Road, Suite 500, Aurora, CO 80014; Telephone: 303/337-0990.


Standard 1: Scarcity - Productive resources are limited. Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

Standard 7: Markets - Price and Quantity Determination - Markets exist when buyers and sellers interact. This interaction determines market prices and thereby allocates scarce goods and services.

Standard 8: Role of Price in Market System - Prices send signals and provide incentives to buyers and sellers. When supply or demand changes, market prices adjust, affecting incentives.

The Economics America National Standards ( are published by the National Council on Economic Education (

Discussion Questions

1. According to the report, approximately how many barrels of oil does America consume daily? Approximately how much of that oil is imported?

2. Based on your understanding of the hypothetical scenario presented in We Were Warned: Out of Gas, to what extent do you think that the U.S. society is based on oil? What aspects of society are directly or indirectly dependent on oil? Explain. Do you think that Americans are "addicted to oil"? State your rationale.

3. According to the report, what is "tomorrow's oil crisis"? How might a massive disruption of existing oil supplies impact the U.S. socially, politically and economically? To what extent do you think that, as former CIA director James Woolsey asserts, leadership, conservation and a genuine commitment to alternative fuels and hybrid technology are matters of national security? State your rationale.

4. What new supplies of oil and alternatives to oil does CNN's Frank Sesno explore in his report? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of each venture? Do you think that any of these ventures appear to provide a viable option for overcoming American dependence on foreign oil? Explain.

5. According to the program, how are China's energy needs changing, and why? What potential problems do you think that China might encounter if its energy consumption continues to increase at its current pace?

6. In the program, oil analyst Matthew Simmons asserts that, "What we should be doing is helping China figure out how they basically create a society beyond oil." What do you think that he means? What might this society look like? How might it differ from one that is oil dependent?

7. Based on what you learned in the report, what factors can affect the supply of oil available for consumption? What factors can impact worldwide demand for oil? What does Simmons believe will happen to the balance between the supply and demand of oil in the near future? How might the supply or demand of oil impact the price that American consumers pay at the pump? According to the report, how might extreme fluctuations in the supply, demand or price of oil lead to a crisis?

8. Throughout the program Sesno interviews government officials, consumers, oil company and automotive executives, geologists, oil analysts and entrepreneurs. What roles do each of these representatives play in developing U.S. energy policy? Who or what do you think has, or should have, the greatest impact on energy policies in the U.S.? Explain.

9. What challenges do you think that the U.S. faces in trying to address its reliance on oil imports? Do you think that U.S. dollars should be spent on any of the programs explored in the report (e.g., pursuing new sources of oil, promoting conservation, developing new technologies or finding alternative and renewable sources of energy)? Explain. What, if any, additional information would you want to know before you invested in any of these programs?

10. According to this program, about what have we been warned? Do you think that the warning is justified or supported by the program? Explain. Do you think that Americans should heed this warning? According to Sesno, why doesn't the U.S. have a big alternative energy market? Are you personally concerned about a potential oil crisis? Why or why not? What, if anything, would you be willing to do to avert or prepare for a potential oil crisis?

Suggested Activities

Alternative Sources of Energy

Point out to students that, during his 2006 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush proposed weaning the U.S. from its dependence on imported oil. He asked Congress to support a new plan called the Advanced Energy Initiative. With a national goal of replacing more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, the initiative calls for investments in new fuels and technologies that will change how we power our homes, businesses and automobiles.

Based on the information in We Were Warned: Out of Gas and from the Advanced Energy Initiative proposals, have students list the proposed options for breaking America's dependence on foreign oil. These options might include drilling for new sources of oil in U.S. territories, mining in the oil sands of Northern Canada, developing technologies that harness wind, solar and hydrogen power, creating biofuels such as ethanol, turning agricultural residue into fuel or creating hybrid or petroleum-free automobiles.

Organize students into small groups and assign one of these ventures to each group. Challenge students to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of their assigned programs, and have them consider the potential economic, social, political and environmental challenges that these ventures might need to overcome to be successful. After groups have presented their findings, pose the following questions for class discussion:

  1. What are the differences between renewable and nonrenewable energies?
  2. In your opinion, which of these energy sources is the best? Why?
  3. Do you think that the U.S. can, or should, achieve complete independence from imported oil? Why or why not?

Encourage students to write letters to consumer groups, government officials or oil and automotive industry executives that recommend what, if anything, they think should be done to break America's dependence on foreign oil.

Exploring Gas Prices

In the hypothetical scenario presented in We Were Warned: Out of Gas, U.S. oil refinery damage from a Category 5 hurricane and terrorist attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities force the price of gasoline to jump to $7.00 per gallon. Ask: Why might disruptions to the supply of oil impact the price we pay at the pump?

Inform students that there are many factors that can affect gas prices. Refer students to the CNN Student News Extra!: Gas Prices and to other related resources to learn more about these factors.

In the program, CNN's Frank Sesno suggests that the reason the U.S. doesn't have a big alternative energy market is because oil is still cheap. Have students discuss the implications of this assertion. Ask:

  1. To what extent do you think that oil prices affect U.S. demand for alternative energies?
  2. What other factors could impact U.S. demand for alternative energy sources?
  3. Do you think that an extreme rise in oil prices could lead to an extreme demand for alternative energies in the U.S.? Explain.
  4. How much would you be willing to pay to fill up your car?

After the discussion, challenge students to determine how much they would spend in gasoline per year to drive their favorite cars. Have students locate the fuel economy for city and highway driving of some of their favorite cars. Then, direct each student to a fuel cost calculator, and have him or her plug in the appropriate numbers (including the local average price of gas per gallon).

Once they have retrieved the calculated costs of fuel for one year, have them increase the average price per gallon in $10 or $20 increments. After students have presented their findings, ask: Were you surprised at what you would pay for a year's worth of gasoline at the current price? At what price would you be unwilling or unable to fill up your car? What, if anything, would you be willing to do to avoid paying high prices at the pump?


oil, gasoline, refinery, al Qaeda, crude, hybrid, alternative fuels, ethanol, petroleum, energy, "Deepwater Millennium," natural gas, hydrogen power, solar power, wind power, Hurricane Katrina, "flex fuel cars," conservation, climate change, Saudi Arabia, Canada, China

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