A BP-Size Leak Every 3 Hours

Comparing the Gulf spill to our carbon emissions.

BPOfficial estimates are in for BP’s Gulf oil spill: it’s pegged at about five million barrels of oil total. That’s a mind-bending amount of fossil fuel.

And yet it’s not much. Or, at least it’s not much compared to what the United States emits in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, our carbon pollution is so huge that it’s like taking that five million barrels of oil, burning every drop of it, and then doing the same thing again every 2 hours and 41 minutes. We do it without stopping. We do it almost 9 times a day; 61 times a week; more than 3,000 times a year.

Fortunately, BP finally put a cap on the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf. But the US Senate, by contrast, has declined to put a cap on the bigger catastrophe. It’s too politically risky, we’re told. And it doing so might shave a few decimal points off the nation’s GDP growth over the next 40 years, so never mind the economic afflictions that an altered climate is predicted to deliver. Unfortunately, we should expect that the damages from climate change will far outstrip the harm that BP dealt to the Gulf.

Notes: I estimated that the US produces seven billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent annually, based on the most recent EPA inventory for all sources of emissions, not counting emissions sinks. I assumed that the carbon content of a barrel of oil is, on average, 0.43 metric tons, consistent with EPA’s published calculator, though in reality this figure can vary based on several factors. Tweaking these assumptions could alter my figures a bit.

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  1. Thomas says:

    I want to know if you have solar panels on your roof, and do you ride a bike to work. I want to know how you cook your food, how you light and warm your house. What I want you to know really, is how just fricking hypocritical all ths CO2 crap is. Society is trying to reduce the CO2 emissions, and stupid articles like this are just hyper-blabber about the obvious. What do you expect to accomplish? Do you think that the world is going to reduce use of petroleum by 50% much less 10% after reading this stupid article. I am just sick and tired of this unrealistic expectation. Yeah,we use petro, get use to it. That is not going to change overnight.

  2. aliciakauna says:

    WOW Thomas! How pessimistic and honestly quite rude!You don’t want to hear about it anymore? You think it’s obvious? Well its not! I would venture to say that most Americans don’t think about CO2 or global climate change ever! We need to keep talking about it and we need to push for government reform or we well kill our planet! Obviously it won’t happen over night but it wont happen at all if we don’t address it… and address it with the FACTS, or the bushes of the world will keep telling everyone its not real when it is. So get real!

  3. JoeS says:

    This article is a very useful way to understand one thing in terms of another: carbon emissions in terms of BP oil spill.The approach to the calculation seems reasonable. Even if the author and his EPA sources are off by an order of magnitude it would still be a mind-flinching amount of emissions. Either way, Inception accomplished. (as indicated by some people’s defensive/attack response)

  4. OyezOyezOyez says:

    Framing the oil spill in terms of our carbon emissions is neither useful nor productive. In fact, all it serves to do is make people feel the problem of global carbon emissions is to big to fix. The BP spill is one of epic proportions that is causing catastrophic damage to the Gulf. That’s not to say global warming isn’t an impending disaster, but trying to equate BP’s short-term disaster with something as big as global climate change makes the situation feel too big to fix and perpetuates political inertia around climate change. I appreciate what the author is trying to do by drawing this parallel, but I think it’s the wrong strategy.

  5. killingmeloudly says:

    If we built a 210,000,000 gallon pool in Central Park and all the oil from the Gulf spill was water, it would fill the pool. Then, if that pool sprung a leak, but all the water was maple syrup…Yaay, Wow, Oooh….dazzling as Media.

  6. Kim says:

    Well, the stat cited by NPR is that the BP spill is the biggest in history – and that USA burns through the same amount of oil every 5 1/2 hours . . . which I think IS a very graphic reminder of how dependent on oil we are, of how much climate pollution we produce, of how much we spend on oil, of how much other pollution oil is responsible for – air and water – of how very little progress we have made even with every single president in recent history citing our ‘addiction’ to oil.And as for the comment that it’s not useful to cite the bigness of it all – well, it seems you can’t win for losing. Minimize it, and people don’t pay attention. Tell the real story – and people can’t deal with it.

  7. Herbert Browne says:

    I totally appreciate the article & its comparison, even if I quibble with the metric. I came up with something closer to 1/3 metric ton, figuring in the added weight of Oâ‚‚ combined with the Carbon atoms to make carbon dioxide (after subtracting the weight of hydrogen).The power of the “entropy of not-knowing” is always with us; and is the strongest component of “keeping things the way they are, because it got us this far”… without really wanting to know WHERE WE ARE. “Where we are” is “in trouble!” ^..^

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