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    How Long Would the Gulf Oil Spill Power the USA?

    The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf Coast boggles the mind. And looking at one offshore well destroying such a huge swath of fragile ecologies, it's easy to think, "Man, there's more oil down there than I thought. I see what those 'drill, baby, drill types' were talking about."

    But here's my question: how much oil is that compared to America's energy needs? If all of that oil had gone into refineries instead of into the Gulf and our wetlands, how long would it keep our cars and lights and internet servers going?

    So, apparently, about 5,000 barrels a day have been coming out of that well into the ocean. (210,000 gallons a day, if that's how you'd prefer to think of it.) America's daily oil consumption is somewhere between 20 and 21 million barrels a day. That's 21,000,000 a day. Let's round it down to an even 20 million, just to make the arithmetic easier (I was an English major). And what the heck, maybe some easy, painless conservation efforts could get us down to 20 million a day; they certainly wouldn't get us much lower.

    Even an English major can figure out that, with the numbers rounded down for optimism, we use four thousand times as much oil every day as the amount that's going into the Gulf. That's four thousand. (20,000,000/5,000 = 4,000) The amount of oil that the Deepwater Horizon is clogging the Gulf of Mexico with every day is still only enough to meet the US's energy needs for, ummm, let's see ... 24 hours times 60 minutes times 60 seconds, divided by 4,000, is ... uhhh...

    21.6 seconds.

    Of course, that's only if you round our daily consumption down a little.

    It's hard to get one's head around the astronomical numbers involved in our energy policy, but that's a good concrete example. The amount of oil we use every 21.6 seconds is enough for a massive environmental catastrophe. The next time BP (or Exxon or Shell) shows you an "environmentally conscious" TV ad, remember that during those thirty seconds America used every bit as much oil as went into the Gulf of Mexico today, and almost 40% more.


    I believe in time the accepted figure for how much oil is being spewed out is actually about 50,000 barrels (or ten times BP's estimate). The 5,000 barrels estimate comes from looking at the oil slick on the surface, and estimating from there. Independent scientists have looked at the footage of the oil coming out of the leak itself and say it could be as much as even 100,000 barrels (the Wikipedia article on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has a lot of information). So, instead of 1/4000, it's about 1/400. I.e., about 3-4 minutes. Now, doesn't that sound better? ;)

    Note: if you're rounding down to one significant figure, you should do the same to your results.

    I really like this perspective.  What is your resource?

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