While I can't say I'm entirely confident that the gusher in the Gulf is finally and completely under control, let's be optimistic for a moment—for sake of analysis—and pretend that all but a few still-seeping barrels have spilled. If it's true that most of the crude that will ultimately spill has spilled already, then we can finally try to get our heads around the magnitude of the disaster.
The environmental impact is obviously massive. But in terms of our national thirst for oil, the spill really is, to quote bumbling ex-BP head Tony Hayward, "relatively tiny." The roughly 183 million gallons (to use a moderate estimate) spilled so far into the Gulf are about what we Americans burn every five and a half hours.
Five and a half hours of sitting in traffic and flying to meet clients and firing furnaces and trucking fruit, bottled water, and Amazon packages across the country.
And, in fact, even if all these capping efforts fail and the rest of the oil in the Macundo Prospect, generally considered a relatively small reserve, were to flow unabated, that would still only represent five days worth of American demand, as Andy Revkin pointed out weeks ago.
I haven't been very sympathetic to the "blame your oil-addicted self for the BP spill" arguments, but it is awfully startling to consider how far we are reaching, what risks we're taking, and what we're jeopardizing for a relatively tiny sip of our massive energy thirst. Is this really easier (or cheaper, or safer, or more "American") than retrofitting homes, increasing fuel economy, improving mass transit, and shifting to truly clean, safe and renewable energy sources?
For what it's worth, here's how I came up with five and a half hours:
Estimates for the flow rate of the leak range from 1,470,000 to 4,200,000 gallons per day. The most widely accepted estimates produced by the government and independent (not BP) scientists working together are in the 2,520,000 gallons per day range. Using PBS NewsHour's amazing Gulf Coast oil spill widget (also embedded below), I set the leak rate to roughly 2,520,000 gallons per day. At that rate more than 183 million gallons have been leaked. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2009 the United States consumed an average of 18,686,000 barrels of oil every day. At 42 gallons per barrel, that's 484,812,000 gallons of oil used daily by Americans. Factor label that out, and you've got five and a half hours worth of oil spewed into the Gulf.