A blog experiment by Brad Mills.


Deepwater Horizon worst oil spill in history?

Three and a half weeks ago there was an explosion on an oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig collapsed and sank. Without any of the control mechanisms from the drilling rig, the well started spewing oil into the ocean. NOAA used satellite images to estimate the discharge rate at 5000 barrels per day.

New estimates put the volume at 70,000 barrels of oil per day, not 5000 as previously thought by NOAA. This puts it on a much larger scale than the Exxon Valdez spill (a mere 250,000 barrels total), and if the new estimates are correct, it means Deepwater Horizon is the worst oil spill in history. For the record, NOAA is the government organization which provides us with — among other things — weather forecasts. Please take that into account when considering their original estimate.

Numerous sources (like here, here, here, and here) claim that one quart of oil can pollute up to 250,000 gallons of water. With these numbers, I thought it would be pretty easy to calculate the actual extent of the damage and put it in perspective. I've done these back of the envelope calculations a few times now and wanted to officially record them for posterity.

This is day 24 of the spill, so taking the new estimate into account, that means 1.68 million barrels of oil have spewed into the sea so far. And one barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, so that's 70.56 million gallons.

Since there are four quarts in a gallon, that comes to 282.24 million quarts. And, since one quart pollutes 250,000 gallons of water, that means 70.56 trillion gallons of seawater have been damaged by this disaster. Using the same numerical methods, that number is increasing by 2.94 trillion per day.

That's right: 2.94 trillion gallons of seawater are being polluted each day.

One human being uses about 50 gallons of water per day. There are close to 6.8 billion of us crawling around on this rock, so all told, we use about 340 billion gallons of water daily. So basically, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is contaminating 8.6 times humanity's daily water usage each day.

Now: Let's switch gears for just a moment. I'm not a large-scale consumer of electricity, and in fact, I used less than 400 kWh last month for an average constant load of only 535 watts. Throughout the year, though, and accounting for a very warm summer, I feel comfortable pegging my normal peak electrical load at around 1100 watts.

A typical 150 watt solar panel measures about 1.3 square meters in area. In one square kilometer there are 1 million square meters, which would hold 769,000 of these 150 watt panels. So, a solar cell 1 square kilometer in size would pump out 115 MW of electricity. That's enough to run 104,500 houses like mine.

In case you're wondering what electrical usage and solar panels have to do with the oil spill, here we go.

The oil slick now floating in the Gulf of Mexico has an area anywhere from 6,500 to 24,000 square kilometers. Based on the electrical output listed above, if it were a field of solar cells, it would generate electricity in a range from 747 gigawatts to 2.76 terawatts. That's enough to power about 1.6 billion houses like mine. If we could assume an average of four people per house (which is fair, since that's how many are in my house), that would be enough electricity for 6.4 billion people.

Or in other words, almost the entire damn planet.

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