Oil Exaggerations

Oil Exaggerations


Ever notice how political speeches and ads always mention “the worst,” “the best,” “the largest,” “the most”? It’s effective to use superlatives, but it isn’t always accurate. For instance, President Barack Obama has said that “we import more oil today than ever before” – but do we? How can you find out? What do the numbers really mean? And why would he say it if it wasn’t true? In this lesson, students will weigh Obama’s superlative claim against the facts.


In this activity, students will:
  • Analyze the reasons behind Obama’s claim that “we import more oil today than ever before.”
  • Assess the truth of this claim using data from the Energy Information Administration.


In February 2009, during a joint session of Congress, Obama said that we import more oil today than we ever have. He repeated that claim in an April 2009 interview with a Russian paper. In fact, according to the government’s own sources, oil imports peaked in 2005 and have declined substantially since.


1. White House press release, “Transcript of President Obama’s Interview with Novaya Gazeta.”
2. Energy Information Administration, “Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Imports.”


If your class does not have Internet access, make copies of the Obama transcript for each student, and distribute them at the beginning of the lesson. Determine how many copies of the EIA chart you will need for small groups of about three students each, and make copies to distribute at the beginning of Exercise #2.


Exercise #1 – Asking the Right Questions

Have students read the answer to the second question in the transcript of Obama’s interview with Novaya Gazeta. You will be examining the claim that “we import more oil today than ever before.”

Discuss as a class:
  • What was the point of Obama’s answer? Rephrase it in your own words.
  • How does the claim that “we import more oil today than ever before” support that point?
  • What reasons might Obama have to say that we import more oil than ever before?
  • What questions would you need to ask before deciding whether this claim is true or false?
  • How might you find the answers to these questions?
Exercise #2 – Cross-checking

Break the class into groups of three students each and have them examine the EIA chart, “Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Imports.

In their groups, have students answer the following questions:
  • Does the graph accompanying this chart show that we’re importing more oil today than ever before?
  • What does it show?
  • In what week were we importing the greatest amount of oil?
  • How much were we importing in the most recent week shown on the chart?
  • What’s the difference between these two values?
Exercise #3 – Analysis

Discuss as a class:
  • How does Obama’s claim compare with the facts?
  • How do the facts change the point he was making in the Novaya Gazeta interview?
  • What should Obama have said instead? Is there a claim he could have made that would have reflected the real data without weakening his point?

Optional Activity

Optional Activity #1

For higher grade-level classes with Internet access, have them search for oil import data on their own before supplying them with the EIA chart. For each source they find, they should ask:
  • What reasons do I have to trust this source?
  • What reasons do I have to think this source might be biased?

Optional Activity #2

The EIA graph shows general trends in the data, and the accompanying chart shows actual data points for each week. Have students compare the week with the highest imports (Nov.4, 2005) with the weeks before and after. Have them compare the imports for Sept. 2, 2005, two months before the peak, with the imports from the most recent week. Even when the collected data show a high number of imports, the individual data points can vary greatly. It’s important to look not only at the latest data, but also at the trend, to get a clear picture of the situation.

Discuss the following:
  • If this week’s imports were actually the highest on record, even higher than on May 26, 2006, what would that mean? Would it mean our oil consumption was going up?
  • What other information would you need to draw conclusions from that data point?
  • What advantage does the graph have over the chart? What advantage does the chart have over the graph?

About the Author

Jessica Henig earned her B.A. in history of science from Smith College, and her M.A. in English from the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, she taught digital literature and rhetorical writing. Prior to joining the Annenberg Public Policy Center in May 2007, she worked for the National Academies Press. She has also worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a freelance researcher and editor.

Correlation to National Standards

National Social Studies Standards

X. Civic Ideals and Practices Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Essential Skills for Social Studies

Acquiring Information

A. Reading Skills

1. Comprehension

2. Vocabulary

B. Study Skills

1. Arrange Information in Usable Forms

C. Reference & Information-Search Skills

1. Maps, Globes, Graphics

Organizing & Using Information

A. Thinking Skills

1. Classify Information

2. Interpret Information

3. Analyze Information

4. Summarize Information

5. Synthesize Information

6. Evaluate Information

B. Decision-Making Skills

C. Metacognitive Skills

Interpersonal Relationships & Social Participation

A. Personal Skills

B. Social and Political Participation Skills

Democratic Beliefs and Values

B. Freedoms of the Individual

C. Responsibilities of the Individual

National Educational Technology Standards

Profiles for Technology Literate Students

Performance Indicators

7. Routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publication, communication, and productivity.

8. Select and apply technology tools for research, information analysis, problem solving, and decision making in content learning.

National Mathematics Standards

Number and Operations Standard

Data Analysis and Probability Standard

Process Standards

Reasoning and Proof Standard

Communication Standard

Connections Standard

Representation Standard

Information Literacy Standards

Information Literacy

Standard 1 accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 uses information accurately and creatively.

Social Responsibility

Standard 7 recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 practices ethical behavior in regard to information and information technology.
Standard 9 participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

English Language Arts Standards

Standard 7 Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

Standard 12 Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

National Science Standards

Science as Inquiry
Content Standard A

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Content Standard F

History and Nature of Science
Content Standard G