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Some Perspective on the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Panic time, folks. News stories about impending environmental disasters. A couple of senators calling for hearings. The media calling it "Obama's Katrina". Time for that rarest of things, perspective.

1. Chance that a US operated Gulf of Mexico rig sinks and spills?  A. 0.025% or 1 in 4000.

2. How much oil will this spill (worst case scenario)?  A. 150,000 barrels.

3. How much is it leaking now?  A. 5,000 barrels per day, although it sounds so much bigger when you multiply by 42 and put it into gallons.

4. How much natural oil seepage is there in the Gulf of Mexico?  A.  5,000 barrels per day, although it is widely distributed and not point sourced.

5. Where will this rank?  A. 37th in the world's top 71 man-made oil spills.

6. What happened to the 121,000 barrels spilled by the Mega Borg (the second largest spill in the GOM)?  A. They burned it.  1800 barrels recovered, 270 barrels left after burning, so, in essence, via burning and wind and wave action biodegradation, 121,000 barrels turned into a little over 2000 barrels.  The Prudhoe Bay incident was magnified because it had little wind or wave action... it was a closed system.

7. How does this compare to, say, wildfires?  A. Wildfires fully devastate the areas they cover, and typically take 5-30 years to fully recover from a ground fire and up to 150 years to recover from a crown fire.  Full recovery from an oil spill is typically a year or less.

8. OK, but how about the carbon footprint between them?  A.  In fully protected fire areas (a small amount of total forest), there are typically 10,000 to 30,000 forest fires per year world wide.  These consume 16,000,000 hectares per year, and release 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (mind you, this is just a small subset of fires, the subset we are most able to fight and protect).  This spill will release, at most a little over 52,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.  That is, 0.0033% of fully protected fightable wildfires.

9. But, but... the poor birds?  A.  Fires fully incinerate the animals they touch.  Oily animals make fine, heart-rending posters and cover shots for Time.

So now lets look at the number of these spills...

Now, let's look at the charts.  First, how will this rank in terms of Gulf of Mexico spills?

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spills

Worst case, a very distant second.  Interestingly, only 3 came from drilling or production platforms.

How does this rate from a global perspective?

Offshore oil spills

Pretty low, actually.  Lets look at this ordered by volume.  By the way, this chart really illustrates how much better industry practices have become in both shipping and drilling.

Global Spills, Barrels of oil

Pretty weak from a Global Disaster point of view. 

In essence, one could fit the environmental consequences of every spill in the history of the hydrocarbon era into one small forest fire, out of the 10,000 we have every year.

In fact, those that are trying to label this as a "Katrina" episode, either motivated to hate the oil industry for whatever reason or hate Obama for whatever reason (imagine THAT combination of folks, a lot of whiskey and beer, with maybe Alex Jones thrown in for good measure, at a party! What a fine party that would be!), are just propagandizing, as usual.

So those are the facts. Make of them what you will. Without perspective, you are bound to make poor decisions.

By. Allen Gilmer




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