A Professor’s Teachable Moment: “It’s not just a BP spill. It is our spill.”

Web-based tool calculates fuel equivalent of spill, raises policy questions

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WASHINGTON—Whether it’s 35,000 or 60,000 or 100,000 barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico daily, it’s an overwhelming and mind-numbing figure for most Americans to try to grasp. And the total keeps mounting. Still, University of Delaware professor James Corbett spied a lesson among this unbearable wreckage of tar balls and petroleum plumes.

Sensing what schools call “teachable moments,” the professor of marine policy at the university’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment is attempting to put a portion of the seemingly endless ecological calamity into perspective.

His result is an evolving Web page that calculates how many cars, trucks and ships all of those spilled barrels of crude—once refined to gasoline, diesel and residual fuel oil—could have powered during the course of a year. Each barrel holds 42 gallons.

“One of the messages here is that this is not fuel for very many cars, compared to the consequences of the spill,” Corbett said. “And the consequence here is bigger than anybody envisioned.” 

There are other possible lessons that emerge from using Corbett’s tool, which he designed to be value-neutral.

“I was looking for what would be the right comparison to help people understand the spill in a context that made sense,” Corbett told Solve Climate in an interview about the project he brainstormed over the Memorial Day weekend. “This is a context-provider. It’s not definitive.”

For instance, as of today—Tuesday, June 22—it has been 64 days since the four-mile-deep exploratory well blew out. Use one of BP’s original estimates of 5,000 barrels per day, and the arithmetic shows that’s enough to fuel 11,000 cars and 900 trucks for a year and a container ship for 15 days. Container ships burn through an average of 667 barrels of fuel daily, more than other ships because of their higher sea speeds.

Plug in BP’s worst-case scenario figure of 100,000 barrels daily, and that translates to 229,000 cars and 19,000 trucks annually and a container ship for 317 days. Punch in 50,000 barrels daily, an average estimated by scientists, and that’s enough to fuel 114,000 cars and 9,500 trucks for a year and a container ship for 158 days. Government scientists now estimate the flow is somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day.

Corbett, reached while traveling in Ireland for work-related business, tweaks the site as more information is revealed. He draws data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Enough Fuel for Cars in a Small City for a Year

Visitors can also interact with a map that lists dozens of U.S. counties and cities with between 100,000 and 200,000 automobiles. It’s places such as Reno, Nev., Buffalo, N.Y., Salem, Ore. and Savannah, Ga., where the spilled oil could power vehicles for at least a whole year.

Is that enough fuel to make deepwater drilling worth the risk?

Devastation to the intricate, highly evolved food chain of the Gulf is so severe that scientists estimate it will take decades for some sort of normalcy to return to these vulnerable and fragile habitats for aquatic animal and plant life.

Even the oil and natural gas that BP is now recovering daily—an estimated 15,000 barrels that is expected to rise to a capacity of 80,000 barrels by mid-July—is not refinery-bound because it is being flared at the rig.

If the spilled oil had been refined, Corbett estimates its value would be in the neighborhood of $225 million, using a base price of $75 per barrel.

Today, oil is selling for about $77 a barrel. Is it any wonder some observers find that to be an absurdly reward for an offshore undertaking that has spurred a six-month deepwater drilling moratorium and raised more and more watchdogs’ eyebrows since April 20?

At President Obama’s behest, BP just agreed to start a $20 billion compensation fund designated for reimbursing Gulf businesses and residents for economic damages. Thus far, the oil giant has paid out at least $105 million to fishermen, hotel and restaurant owners, and others claiming damages.

More than two-thirds of the 20 billion barrels of oil Americans plow through daily is dedicated to transportation needs. That’s roughly 14 billion barrels a day.

Of course, that number could be trimmed significantly, Corbett explained, by improving vehicle fuel economy, rebalancing how goods are shipped so rail plays a more significant role and encouraging car sharing and public transportation.

“What I’m trying to do is have this Web site serve an interpretive role so people can see themselves in the spill,” he said. “It’s not just a BP spill. It is our spill, or at least partly ours.”

As a professor, Corbett said he urges his students to see the larger picture so they understand that crafting workable transportation policy requires examining problems from every conceivable angle.

“I don’t have an agenda,” he said. “I understand why we do offshore drilling, to feed our needs, but I want my students to be asking if we need to take that risk in the Gulf.”

With a catastrophe such as this one, people’s initial emotional reaction is to lay blame and demand an investigation of what caused the spill, Corbett said. And that’s understandable.

“We asked high-performing companies to go out and find oil for us,” he said about the reason companies are drilling wells miles beneath the ocean’s surface. “And companies won’t stop going out to that depth to look for oil unless we stop the demand, ask the right policy questions and think about the way we use our petroleum resources.”