The Gulf Oil Disaster by the Numbers

nasa-spill-043010The continuous stream of updates on the Deepwater oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico suggests this story is moving from bad to worse.

Early estimates from BP were that 1,000 barrels of oil a day week leaking from the ruptured wellhead a mile below the ocean surface.  On Wednesday, officials revised that estimate to 5,000 barrels a day.  Late on Friday, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University who specializes in tracking ocean oil seeps from satellite imagery, Dr. Ian MacDonald, said there may already be more than 9 million gallons of oil floating in the Gulf now, based on his estimate of a 25,000 barrel-a-day leak rate.

As large and shocking as these numbers seem, what do they even mean?  How can we quantify the vast quantities of oil that are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day?

olympicpoolHere’s a few ways to visualize 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of oil, which for now represent the ‘accepted’ estimates.

At today’s average gas prices ($2.88/gallon) it would cost $604,800/day if you left the pump running at your local gas station to discharge that much fuel.

You would have to open 14.5 gas pumps on full all day to fill 5,000 barrels.

That much oil would completely fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than 3 days.


Or if you filled gallon milk jugs with oil and placed the jugs on a regulation-sized NFL football field, you would cover 91% of a field each day with oil-filled jugs. In the 10 days since the Deepwater exploded, enough oil has leaked into the Gulf of Mexico to cover 91% of the football fields where the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans and the Washington Redskins play football.

The Oil Disaster by the Numbers:

$16,000,000: Amount BP spent on lobbying in Washington in 2009
210,000: Gallons of oil spilled per day at the BP platform site (low end of the range)
162,000: Gallons of oil spilled per day in BP’s “worst-case scenario” exploration plan
315,000,000,000: Barrels of oil the U.S. consumes per year (approx)
2,726,000: Million metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted on U.S. roads every year (approx)
1.6%: Percentage of total global proven oil reserves the U.S. possesses
0.3%: Percentage of total global proven oil reserves in the U.S. outer continental shelf
1: Number of shut-off switches BP may have needed to purchase to prevent this accident
3-8: Months it could take to contain the spill

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But even these comparisons don’t do justice to the injury. It is not just a gallon of oil displacing a gallon of sea water. Consider the surface area over which a gallon of oil will be displaced–probably measured in portions of a mile. Consider the number of micro-globules into which wave action (and possibly chemical emulsifiers from aircraft as part of the APPARENT “solution”) will break each gallon of oil to reach zooplankton, estuary shellfish filter-feeders and out-of-sight out-of-mind shallow ocean sediments. It staggers the mind and sickens the soul. This could have been avoided, and must be, going forward.

Comment by fred1st on May 2, 2010 7:13 am

Thank you for your comment, Fred1st, and I agree with you: the actual amount of oil is almost secondary to the problems it will cause in the ocean and tidal ecosystems as it works its way into and up the food chain. I do want to help people visualize actual quantities, though, since we become desensitized to large numbers when billions of dollars pay for wars and trillions of dollars represent a national debt. I hope this incident represents the ‘death throes’ of a dirty, dark and dying institution – but how many of us thought that in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground? Now is the time for leaders to lead us stridently away from these dirty energy mistakes and into the next energy era. If this rig had been a wind turbine, we’d be calling the sunken structure prime fishery habitat by now.

Comment by Jennifer Rennicks on May 2, 2010 10:20 pm

What a disaster and may take years to recover. We may not be the first species to cause it’s own demise, but we may well be the first species to cause it’s own demise knowingly. We are all guilty in this country for our insatiable thirst for oil. In a country which consumes 25 percent of world”s energy we need to take a new direction. I am sorrowed by this disaster as should be all Americans.

Comment by Terry Lyon on May 16, 2010 5:17 pm

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