The Earth's Energy Resources (GEOL 115)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln


This course examines the geology of energy resources. Emphasis is placed on those energy resources that society values most highly and consumes most voraciously. We emphasize those aspects of geology that are particularly relevant to the production of energy resources and to attempts to estimate the ultimate global recovery of these resources. We also consider briefly policy issues related to energy resource development, production, and utilization.

Course URL:

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisite. Students have typically taken it to fulfill a portion of their science general education requirement. The student population thus comprises largely freshman undergraduates intent on pursuing a major outside the sciences. A significant number of the students (~10%) are in the environmental sciences program and a few students have utilized this course as a gateway to the geology major. The general education requirements of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been revised recently. This course now supports the learning outcome that students "Use scientific methods and knowledge of the natural and physical world to address problems through inquiry, interpretation, analysis, and the making of inferences from data, to determine whether conclusions or solutions are reasonable."

Course Content:

This course focuses on the geology of energy resources. We examine the geology of sedimentary basins, the carbon cycle and preservation of organic matter; the generation and migration of petroleum and natural gas; the formation and mining of uranium deposits; and the formation and mining of coal. We also consider oil shales, tar sands, methane hydrates, and comment on the source of hydrogen. The subject matter requires that students learn basic petroleum and organic geochemistry, nuclear chemistry, sedimentary geology, geophysics, and plate tectonics. The course is taught using a lecture format with some demonstrations and interactive exercises during lecture. Students complete nine problem sets that reinforce and amplify the material learned in lecture and in the reading assignments.

Course Goals:

1) Students will develop an understanding of the abundance and distribution of geological energy resources.
2) Students will be able to research and read news reports about energy resources, synthesize and critique those communications prepared for the general public, and communicate their analysis to a third party.

Course Features:

This course emphasizes issues of scale. Citizens typically have difficulty examining many issues critically simply because the numbers involved are outside their common usage. Lecture content and the problem sets force students to confront issues of scale to become comfortable with them.

There are few good texts for the subject matter that I cover in this course. I have found that keeping a course blog gives the students an additional reference.

Course Philosophy:

This course was appropriate given my background (a short stint in the petroleum industry and graduate work on ore deposits) and the niche that existed for our department in environmental science offerings at UNL. Nebraska students have concrete connections to energy production. The state has a small, mature, declining oil industry and a nascent wind industry. Although most students are aware that Nebraska is among the leading states for biofuels production, few are aware that it is one of the nation's leaders in uranium production.


Student understanding and achievement are assessed through the nine problem sets, three hourly exams and a final exam. The problem sets are designed largely as learning exercises, wherein the students work through a set of calculations or the directed collection and analysis of some data. Each problem set does, however, have a summary question that assesses how well the student learned the object of the assignment. Almost all exam questions require that the student provide a short written answer. Each midterm exam requires that the student be able to define some terms. The bulk of the exam, however, comprises interpretation of graphs, maps, cross sections, geophysical logs and sections and burial history plots. These questions thus require students to use data to answer a question or formulate a testable hypothesis. Commencing with Fall 2009, the instructor will collect and archive a sample of students' work (final exams and problem sets). The material will be sampled from the top, middle, and bottom third of the class as determined by their performance on the exercise to be sampled. This material will be discussed with the Geosciences curriculum committee annually.


GEOL 115 Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 21kB May7 09)

References and Notes:

Deffeyes K.S. 2001. Hubbert's Peak: The impending world oil shortage. Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-11625-3, 208 pp.

Deffeyes K.S. 2005. Beyond Oil. The View from Hubbert's Peak. Hill and Wang ISBN 0-8090-2956-1, 202 pp.

Course blog