Crunching the Oil Spill Numbers

July 30, 2010 |  by

Green oil barrelsAs promised, I’ll share my trick to sizing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with previous catastrophes is working with different units.

Self-interest plays a role in how previous spills and the BP gusher are reported. Amounts in gallons look MUCH BIGGER than amounts in barrels…and weight in tonnes look MUCH SMALLER than weight in pounds. What about those liquid measures and weights? How to compare the two? Many don’t bother to do the math.

To compare these two statements, you need to convert their numbers into equivalent units.

  • “In June 1979 the exploratory oil well Ixtoc 1 suffered a blowout and wasn’t capped until it had released 461,000 tonnes of oil in total”
  • “Current projections [as of June 15] estimate Deepwater Horizon’s discharge at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels [of oil] per day.”
  1. Convert weights and liquid measures into a common unit. (average of Mexican, California and Texan crude weight = 315 pounds/barrel; 6.98 barrels/tonne)
  2. Review high and low estimates of Deepwater Horizon spill/day from multiple sources – BP, US Dept of Interior, National Incident Command, Woods Hole (Low: BP 20,000 barrels/day to High: National Incident command 60,000 barrels/day). Remove outliers.
  3. Ixtoc 1 released 3,217,783 barrels of oil in 1979.
  4. It is worth noting that as of this posting, the final Deepwater Horizon tallies are not yet in.

Click here for couple of other things of interest along those lines. Scott Brown, thank you for the suggestion (scott@

1 Comment

  1. In keeping with the theme of this post emphasizing units, I recently saw this article from PBS and thought you’d be interested. The stats provide some interesting, accurate real-world analogies on just how much oil has been spilled. For example,

    “194,701 – The number of times a Toyota Prius (one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road) could drive on around the earth at the equator powered by gas refined from the crude oil lost in the spill.”

    Check out the other figures:

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