How Is Oil Made?

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12263

Have you ever heard of a car being powered by dead animals? Eeeeew! Actually, gasoline is made of really old dead animals and plants! Learn how it's made and how it's found!


Earth Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Watch the quick video below.

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  • What kind of machine do you think this is?
  • What do you think it does?

The video above shows an oil drill and pump —  sometimes called a nodding donkey or pumpjack — that is used in oil wells.

  • How does it work?
  • Why does oil need to be pumped from a well?

Oil is considered a fossil fuel. Coal and natural gas are considered fossil fuels. The remains of once-living organisms form fossil fuels.

As dead plants and animals dry out and decay, they become oil, coal, and natural gas. Since living organisms must be dead for thousands of years to become fossil fuels, fossil fuels are buried deep below the surface of the earth.

Oil is often located thousands of feet below the surface of the earth, so a pump is needed to bring it to the earth’s surface where it can be used by humans.

First, geologists — or people who study the earth — must find where oil reserves are located.

Geologists use sound to locate oil reserves. Sound travels at different speeds through solids, liquids, and gases. Scientists create sounds and use machines to listen to how the sound travels through the earth.

They can tell whether oil, which is a liquid, is in a certain area of the earth based on the sound they hear.

After geologists locate an oil reserve, engineers — or people who design and use machinery — use large drills to pump oil to the surface of the earth.

The drill consists of a large pipe that goes deep into the earth. When the pipe is moved, it can pull the oil to the earth's surface.

The amount of oil pulled per day depends on the type of drill being used, but most drills can pull thousands of pounds of oil from the earth per day.

The images below show examples of oil drills. The first drill is used on land. The second drill, known as an offshore drill, is used at sea.

Drilling for oil at sea presents some additional challenges because the drill must first extend the depth of the sea before entering the earth’s surface.

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Drilling for oil presents a few problems.

First, it can be harmful to the environment. Oil drills can break or leak, causing oil to spill over the land or into the sea. This not only damages soil and water but is harmful to living organisms that call the region home.

In 2007, an oil company had a major oil spill at sea. Around 134 million gallons of oil were spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. A recent study estimates the oil spill created $17.2 billion in environmental damage by destroying beaches and coral reefs and killing animals and fish.

Besides the hazards of drilling for oil, many scientists fear we are drilling too much oil too quickly. Oil is a nonrenewable resource. That means once it is used, it cannot easily be reproduced.

It takes thousands of years for new fossil fuels to form from the remains of dead plants and animals.

  • What would happen if the world ran out of oil?
  • Why is it important to find new forms of energy?

Move to the Got It? section to take a closer look at the oil drills used at sea.

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