Image Source: Boston.com
A new AP article out on Monday had my jaw on the ground. The article, By the numbers: Oil leak wouldn't fill Superdome by Seth Borenstein seemed to play down the severity of the BP oil leak and support BP CEO Tony Hayward's statement that the amount of oil spilled was "relatively tiny" by providing comparisons to everyday measures that we can relate to.
While the spirit of the article was not malicious it was a misguided attempt to compare organic apples to DDT-soaked oranges. While it may be true that "for every gallon of oil that BP's well has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, there is more than 5 billion gallons of water already in it," the actual concentration of the oil is much higher in many places. Sure, every 7.6 seconds more water flows into the Gulf from the Mississippi River than the entire BP leak to-date, but the river is adding water, not toxic oil that will persist in the environment for years.
Overwhelmed and saddened by the gargantuan size of the Gulf oil spill? A little mathematical context to the spill size can put the environmental catastrophe in perspective. Viewing it through some lenses, it isn't that huge. The Mississippi River pours as much water into the Gulf of Mexico in 38 seconds as the BP oil leak has done in two months.
Sure, "The amount of oil spilled so far could only fill the cavernous New Orleans Superdome about one-seventh of the way up" but the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have "only" filled it 1/200th. Just ask the people whose livelihoods were destroyed, whose health was compromised, and whose environment still has not recovered after 21 years how devastating such a "small" amount of oil can be.
The amount of oil spilled so far, if refined into gasoline, is equivalent to "the amount American drivers burn every three hours and 43 minutes." Doesn't sound like that much, does it? Well, tell that to these poor oil-drenched animals (Warning: Graphic Images, Viewer Discretion Is Advised).
Yes,"if you put the oil in gallon milk jugs and lined them up, they would stretch about 11,000 miles" but according to the Department of Health and Human Services, ingesting 12 oz. of gasoline is lethal for person weighing 70 kg (154 pounds) and (if we assume that crude oil is half as toxic as gasoline) the amount spilled by the BP leak is enough to lethally poison 750,000,000 people--roughly 10 percent of the total human population!
Want More Comparisons?
- The BP leak has spilled 18 times more oil to date than was spilled as a result of hurricane Katrina.
- The BP leak has spilled 11.5 times more oil than oil companies including Shell have spilled in the Niger Delta annually for the last 50 years (546 million gallons).
- 24,600: How many more yachting vacations Tony Hayward could have taken on his private jet with the amount of oil spilled already. (It took around 5100 gallons of oil to make the jet fuel that flew Tony Hayward from Louisiana to the UK and back last weekend).
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.