IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Gulf spill, how much is that in gas?

Today's new controversy over the quantity and rate of the underwater oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico comes at a convenient time for me because just yesterday

Today's new controversy over the quantity and rate of the underwater oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico comes at a convenient time for me because just yesterday I was trying to work some numbers to make the size of the spill a little more tangible. So far I've seen comparisons of the Gulf spill to other spills in history (also here) but that doesn't mean much to me.'s photo collection is certainly emotionally powerful, and this site's trick for letting you cover your city in a spill's-worth of oil is compelling, but to me, oil means gas. So just how much gas are we talking about?Just to catch up on today's events, it had previously been accepted that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were pumping out of the broken pipe at the bottom of the Gulf. Then the other day the world got a look at the leak itself and well-trained minds did some calculations and decided that the actual output of that pipe is as much as a factor of ten different from what is being claimed.In fact, the scientist NPR talked to put the rate around 70,000 barrels per day.For the purposes of my math, I'm going to go with 50,000 barrels per day and here's why:

The 5,000 number that was commonly accepted yesterday wasn't actually the first estimate. At first it was thought that the rate was 1,000 barrels per day. It's funny to note that the headlines when the estimate was upped to 5,000 are almost the same as today's headlines: Size of Spill in Gulf of Mexico Is Larger Than Thought. So given a history of underestimating, I don't have much confidence in the 5,000 barrel assessment.Today's New York Times (headline: Size of Oil Spill Underestimated, Scientists Say) makes mention of the fact that "BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day..."Also, "BP has repeatedly said that its highest priority is stopping the leak, not measuring it. 'There's just no way to measure it,' Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said in a recent briefing."Ah, yeah... that sounds like butt covering to me. It can't be measured but if is to be measured it's about 1,000 barrels, I mean 5,000 barrels, well, at the very most it's 60,000 barrels but really, the important thing is capping, so let's stop all this measurement talk. !?So I'm going with 50,000 barrels a day because I think everyone who has a stake in causing the spill is lying by a factor of ten. (Also, two weeks ago satellite images led to another guess of 26,000 so putting us at 50,000 two weeks after that doesn't seem unreasonable.)Today will make 24 days since the explosion on the rig. I don't find any specific data on whether the leak started with the explosion or with the sinking of the rig two days later, but it does seem to be the case that the blowout preventer should have kicked in after the explosion and since that failure is largely to blame for the unprevented blowout, I'm going to start my count at April 20th, so 24 days of gushing.24d x 50,000bpd = 1,200,000 barrels leaked so far.There are a lot of sources online for estimates of how much gasoline you can get from a barrel of oil. Frustratingly, though understandably, the better the answer the less definite number it produces. Since I need a number for this math, I'm going with the kids page on the Department of Energy site that says I get 18.56 gallons of gasoline from a 42 gallon barrel.1,200,000b x 18.56gpb = 22,272,000 gallons of gas wastedDepending on the engine in your Chevy Tahoe, the EPA estimates you can get 21mpg on the highway. Let's call it 20 to keep our numbers round and because you know you never get the EPA's mileage.22,272,000g x 20mpg = 445,440,000 miles of Chevy Tahoe driving at highway speeds on the gas that could have been made from the Gulf spill so far.Ok, here comes the mind blower: The average distance of the moon from the Earth at any given time is 238,857 miles.445,440,000 / 238,857 = 1864.88 let's divide that by 2 for a round trip = 932 times that you could drive to the moon and back with the gas not being made from the oil on its way to killing a quarter of the U.S. fishing industry.If driving to the moon is too abstract, how about this: The distance around the Earth is 24,901.55 miles.445,440,000 / 24,901.55 = 17,888 times around the Earth (at the equator) in a big-ass Chevy Tahoe with SpongeBob playing on the little TV screens in the backs of the seats with the gas not made from the oil so far blasted into the Gulf of Mexico.Ok, maybe distance is also kind of abstract when we're talking about that much distance, so how about this. What's the price of gas where you are? Let's say 3 bucks.22,272,000 x 3 = $66,816,000.00 is how much it would cost you to buy at the pump the gas not being made with the oil that has so far befouled the Gulf of Mexico.****Obviously the numbers you start with matter a lot and obviously we don't have hard numbers and even more obviously I'm not scientifically sophisticated enough to be making any weighty pronouncements about rates of oil flow a mile underwater. So if you want to try your own set of numbers, maybe with BP's 5000 barrels per day rate, or maybe starting on the day of the collapse instead of the day of the explosion, or maybe even with a more fuel efficient car, I welcome you to share your results in the comments below.Also, of course, if I got any of the math wrong here please tell me. :)