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Oil spill numbers

from David Ruccio

The numbers just keep climbing, now making the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by far the largest in U.S. history and perhaps the largest in world history.

According to the Washington Post, the blown-out Macondo well released oil and natural gas at a rate 12 times faster than the government and BP estimated in the early weeks of the crisis and has spilled a whopping 4.9 million barrels, or 205.8 million gallons, to date. 

Macondo’s flow rate has been a major source of controversy since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. Early in the crisis, the Coast Guard and BP pegged the flow at 5,000 barrels a day, sticking with that figure even as outside scientists declared that it low-balled the actual rate. The flow rate team, assembled in May, tried to come up with a more solid figure. Scientists examining the surface slick as well as video taken by submersibles soon upped the estimate; by early June, the government declared the flow to be 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. . .

The new figures indicate that the roughly 800,000 barrels of oil that BP managed to capture with its various containment strategies — a riser insertion tool, a “top hat,” and flaring from a surface rig — represented only about one-sixth of the crude that surged into the gulf over the course of nearly three months. In all, about 1.2 million barrels of oil have been accounted for, either burned, captured or skimmed off the ocean’s surface. That’s about a quarter of the new estimate for the total spill.

No one knows where the other three-quarters of the oil has gone but it’s likely it remains underwater, contaminating vast swathes of the Gulf below the surface.

Here, according to Foreign Policy, are the five other top oil spills in history:

GULF WAR (Persian Gulf, 21 January 1991)
Amount: Between 160 million and 420 million gallons
How it happened: As Iraqi forces withdrew from their position in Kuwait, they sabotaged hundreds of wells, oil terminals, and tankers. All told, a minimum of 4 million barrels were poured into the Persian Gulf.

THE IXTOC 1 OIL WELL (Gulf of Mexico, 3 June 1979 – 23 March 1980)
Amount: 138 million gallons
How it happened: This exploratory oil well suffered a catastrophic blowout (whereby pressure causes the well to explode), caught fire, and caused the drilling platform to collapse. For months, 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil gushed into the ocean every day.

ATLANTIC EMPRESS/AEGEAN CAPTAIN COLLISION (Trinidad and Tobago, 19 July 1979)
Amount: 90 million gallons
How it happened: Two fully loaded oil carriers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, collided 10 miles off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago during a tropical rainstorm. Both ships caught fire and began leaking their contents in what would become the largest tanker-based spill ever recorded.

NOWRUZ PLATFORM (Persian Gulf, 4 February 1983 – 18 September 1983)
Amount: 80 million gallons
How it happened: During the height of the Iran-Iraq War, an oil tanker hit the Nowruz Field Platform in the gulf and knocked it onto a 45 degree angle, damaging the well underneath. The resulting leak of 1,500 barrels a day could not be capped for months because the platform was under constant attack by Iraqi planes.

ABT SUMMER (off the coast of Angola, 28 May 1991)
Amount: 80 million gallons
How it happened: The ABT Summer, a tanker holding 260,000 tons of crude, suffered an explosion 900 miles off the coast of Angola. It burned for three days before sinking and was never recovered.

The numbers matter—because, first, they give us a sense of the magnitude of the spill and the associated consequences on nature and society, and, second, they provide dramatic evidence of the lengths BP and other energy companies will go to obtain their profits.

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