Putting the Gulf oil spill in perspective

How the Deepwater fiasco measures up to other disastrous drilling accidents

By Jenn Kepka

Published May 28, 2010 8:29PM (EDT)

I'm confused. I keep reading that the BP/Transocean/Gulf Oil Spill is the largest oil spill ever for America. Yet I'm also reading that it's not the largest ever seen in the world. Of course this blows my American exceptionalist mind. Aren't we the best at everything, including neglecting our oil rigs and destroying the environment?

I've figured out that half of my difficulty in putting this together is that I simply cannot fathom the size of this oil spill. There's good reason for that. I have no perspective on the size of this thing. Is it the largest in the world? Only a drop in the oceanic bucket? I just don't know. Envirowonk was kind enough to put together a list of the top ten oil spills ever:

These ten oil spills, all massively larger than the Exxon Valdez, were all smaller new stories, either because the ships were offshore, or dropped their toxic loads in less developed parts of the world. The Valdez spilled 10 million gallons off the coast of Alaska, the smallest spill in the top ten was four times larger.

1. Kuwait - 1991 - 520 million gallons. Iraqi forces opened the valves of several oil tankers in order to slow the invasion of American troops. The oil slick was four inches thick and covered 4000 square miles of ocean.

2. Mexico - 1980 - 100 million gallons. An accident in an oil well caused an explosion which then caused the well to collapse. The well remained open, spilling 30,000 gallons a day into the ocean for a full year.

3. Trinidad and Tobago - 1979 - 90 million gallons. During a tropical storm off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, a Greek oil tanker collided with another ship, and lost nearly its entire cargo.

4. Russia - 1994 - 84 million gallons. A broken pipeline in Russia leaked for eight months before it was noticed and repaired.

5. Persian Gulf - 1983 - 80 million gallons. A tanker collided with a drilling platform which, eventually, collapsed into the sea. The well continued to spill oil into the ocean for seven months before it was repaired.

6. South Africa - 1983 - 79 million gallons. A tanker cought fire and was abandoned before sinking 25 miles off the coast of Saldanha Bay.

7. France - 1978 - 69 million gallons. A tanker's rudder was broken in a severe storm, despite several ships responding to its distress call, the ship ran aground and broke in two. Its entire payload was dumped into the English Channel.

8. Angola - 1991 - more than 51 million gallons. The tanker expolded, exact quantity of spill unknown

9. Italy - 1991 - 45 million gallons The tanker exploded and sank off the coast of Italy and continued leaking its oil into the ocean for 12 years.

10. Odyssey Oil Spill - 1988 - 40 million gallons. 700 nautical miles off the cost of Nova Scotia.

Where does Deepwater Horizon rank? Take the latest government report obtained by The New York Times. The experts polled for the report come to this conclusion:

The total leakage and gas/oil mixture from the two sources of the spill, the broken riser and the kink about the BOP, appears to vary significantly over time. Part of this variation may be an artifact of the ROV operations themselves. An accurate estimate would require longer and better quality videos of the leak points, particularly the main leak in the riser pipe. Based upon the incomplete and often poor quality data available to the experts, only a range of values that represent an estimated minimum can be given. Using estimates from the video and auxiliary data given them by BP, the consensus of most experts is that the leakage at the time of the viewed video clips averages 12,000 to 25,000 bbl of oil per day plus considerable natural gas, and could possibly be significantly larger if the conservative assumptions used to make the estimate were relaxed.

Let's take a moment to translate that. First, a barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, so those scary numbers get scarier: 504,000 to 1,050,000 gallons of oil a day for 38 days, at minimum, have leaked into the Gulf according to scientists allowed to review only sketchy video provided by a company with every incentive to provide them with the least reliable data available.

So, if we take the most conservative estimate here, then the total spill to date is somewhere around 19 million gallons of oil. It doesn't make the top ten -- but I somehow don't feel any better about that. If we take the top number of their conservative, minimum range and assume a constant spill volume (unlikely), we have nearly 40 million gallons of oil in the Gulf, and the Deepwater Horizon spill has now moved into tenth place in worldwide oil spills.

Yay, USA, we're number 10!

I think the numbers being thrown around are dizzying, difficulty to translate, and are going to ultimately prove to be wrong. Oil amounts are reported in barrels by those who work with oil, and in gallons by those who work with, well, oceans and water. They make for a confusing mix in news stories, and they are alternately frightening (OMG, ONE MILLION GALLONS A DAY!) or comforting (no, no, just 12,000 barrels!), depending on who's writing what.

You can break this down into gymnasiums full of water or the size of your home town, but, for most of us, a million gallons is as picturable as 40 million, which is to say not at all. The only way this is going to hit home is in costs: to the government, to the coastal economy, and to the wildlife and fauna that are lost. That will put the spill into terms we can understand -- and it will, I bet, push the U.S. much higher on the list of most damaging oil spills ever.

Jenn Kepka

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Gulf Oil Spill