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What Does 184 Million Gallons of Oil Look Like?

Visualizing BP's 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

In the 85 days following the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, oil spilled into the Gulf at a rate of potentially 50,000 barrels per day before the the well was finally capped. Now that the flow has stopped, better estimates can be made on the total amount of oil spilled during the worst spill in recent US history. According to the AP as well as calculations done by CNBC.com, an estimate of the total amount of oil spilled is likely between 182 and 184 million gallons. But how
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

In the 85 days following the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, oil spilled into the Gulf at a rate of potentially 50,000 barrels per day before the the well was finally capped. Now that the flow has stopped, better estimates can be made on the total amount of oil spilled during the worst spill in recent US history.

According to the AP as well as calculations done by CNBC.com, an estimate of the total amount of oil spilled is likely between 182 and 184 million gallons.

But how much is 184 million gallons, really? Such massive figures are nearly impossible to visualize. So, how can we truly understand the scope of this disaster?

In order to answer this question, CNBC.com took a look at how this massive volume of lost oil compares to some things more familiar to every day life in order to bring things a little more down to earth.

By Paul Toscano & Paul Alvord
Posted 17 July 2010

184 Million Milk Jugs

In a simple conversion, imagine the oil spilled to be contained in standard 1-gallon milk jugs. 184 million of them. If the entirety of oil that was spilled was used to fill 1 gallon jugs normally used for the storage of milk, the amount of oil actually spilled may become more understandable. Set side by side, the 184 million oil-filled jugs would cover an area of approximately 1.36 square miles. This amount of 1-gallon containers would be enough for every resident of the 12 most populous US sta
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

In a simple conversion, imagine that the spilled oil was contained in standard 1-gallon milk jugs. 184 million of them. If the entirety of oil that was spilled was in this form, the amount of oil actually spilled may become more understandable.

Set side by side, the 184 million oil-filled jugs would cover an area of approximately 1.36 square miles. This amount of 1-gallon containers would be enough for every resident of the 12 most populous US states (2/3 the population of the country) to carry one in their hand simultaneously.

Olympic-Sized Swimming Pools

If the amount of spilled oil was measured by Olympic-sized swimming pools, the amount of oil would be enough to fill 279 pools to overcapacity. Connected end-to-end, the pools would stretch over 8.6 miles at a depth of 6 feet, 7 inches. It would take Michael Phelps - swimming freestyle at the world-record pace he set in Beijing in 2008 - nearly two hours to make it across. However, Phelps likely wouldn't be able to swim as quickly through thick crude oil than he could through clear, fresh water.
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

If the amount of spilled oil was measured by Olympic-sized swimming pools, it would be enough to fill 279 pools to overcapacity. Connected end-to-end, the pools would stretch over 8.6 miles at a depth of 6 feet, 7 inches.

It would take Michael Phelps - swimming freestyle at the world-record pace he set in Beijing in 2008 - nearly two hours to make it across. However, Phelps likely wouldn't be able to swim as quickly through thick crude oil as he could through clear, fresh water.

Flow Rate of Old Faithful

The famous geyser, "Old Faithful" in Yellowstone National Park, has bursts that shoot up to 8,400 gallons over as much as a 5 minute period, according to the park. Driven by subterranean heat, the geyser shoots boiling waters at high pressure only for a short time and can take up to 91 minutes before erupting again. However, in order for Old Faithful to spew out the volume of oil spilled over the course of the BP spill, it would take the famous geyser approximately 76 days, 1 hour and 23 minutes
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

The famous geyser, "Old Faithful" in Yellowstone National Park, has bursts that shoot up to 8,400 gallons over as much as a 5 minute period, according to the park. Driven by subterranean heat, the geyser shoots boiling water at high pressure only for a short time and it can take up to 91 minutes before erupting again.

However, in order for Old Faithful to spew out the volume of oil leaked over the course of the BP spill, it would take the famous geyser approximately 76 days, 1 hour and 23 minutes - continuously erupting at full strength - to release that much oil.

The Size of Past Oil Spills

The 2010 BP spill was bad, but how does the volume of oil lost compare to other similar spills? One of the most recognizable oil spills in US history, the Exxon Valdez, leaked "only" about 10.8 million gallons, or about 5.9% of the amount spilled in the Deepwater Horizon spill. The Exxon Valdez spill was located in a remote area of Alaska, where the inaccessibility and pristine surroundings seriously compounded the event's environmental impact. The largest spill in modern times was during the Gu
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

The 2010 BP spill was bad, but how does the volume of oil lost compare to other similar spills?

One of the most recognizable oil spills in US history, the Exxon Valdez, leaked "only" about 10.8 million gallons, or about 5.9% of the amount spilled in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The Exxon Valdez spill is remembered as such a large disaster because it occured in a remote area of Alaska, where the inaccessibility and pristine surroundings seriously compounded the event's environmental impact.

The largest spill in modern times was during the Gulf War in Kuwait, where an estimated 239.4 million gallons of oil were intentionally leaked into the Persian Gulf and surrounding area by Iraqi forces.

Compared to the Kuwait spill, the volume of oil in the BP incident was about 76.4% as large, while the Gulf of Mexico's worst spill prior to 2010 - the Ixotoc 1 - leaked about 140.3 million gallons from 1979 into 1980. The Ixotoc 1 was similarly about 76% the size of the BP spill.

Coating San Francisco Bay

If the volume of spilled oil was spread out to a thickness of 1/64 of an inch, the crude would cover the entire main portion of San Francisco Bay, extending approximately 675 square miles. During the oil spill, the slick was rarely found at a thickness of 1/64 of an inch, and was often dispersed and mixed with ocean water to much thinner levels, except when it would clump on shore or in tarballs. Even a film of crude with the thickness of 1/64 of an inch would turn San Francisco bay into a thick
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

If the volume of spilled oil was spread out to a thickness of 1/64 of an inch, the crude would cover the entire main portion of San Francisco Bay, extending approximately 675 square miles.

During the oil spill, the slick was rarely found at a thickness of 1/64 of an inch, and was often dispersed and mixed with ocean water to much thinner levels, except when it would clump on shore or in tarballs. Even a film of crude 1/64 of an inch thick would turn San Francisco bay into a murky soup.

The Oil's Lost Energy Potential

With approximately 4.38 million barrels spilled, how much power could that oil have supplied? Enough to power 674,563 US homes for one year. Energy from oil can be understood via the Barrel of Oil Equivalent or BOE, which is a unit of energy based on the approximate energy released by buring 1 barrel of crude oil. From this conversion, a single barrel of oil yields approximately 5,800,000 BTU, while the oil spilled into the gulf could be converted to about 25.409 trillion BTU, or about 7.45 mill
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

With approximately 4.38 million barrels spilled, how much energy would that oil have supplied?

Enough to power 674,563 US homes for one year.

Energy from oil can be understood via the Barrel of Oil Equivalent or BOE, which is a unit of energy based on the approximate energy released by buring 1 barrel of crude oil. From this conversion, a single barrel of oil yields approximately 5,800,000 BTU, and from this the oil spilled into the gulf could be converted to about 25.409 trillion BTU, or about 7.45 million kilowatt hours (kWh).

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2008 the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residence was 11,040 kWh. According to this number, the energy lost in the spill would be enough to power 674,563 American homes for 1 year.

Spilled Oil In Tanker Trucks

Even to transport the amount of spilled oil over land would pose a significant challenge. A typical large-capacity tanker truck, much like the ones used to fill gasoline stations or carry liquids over land in large quantities, can carry loads of up to around 9,000 gallons. To carry the 184 million gallons spilled, you'd need the capacity of about 20,445 tanker trucks. With an approximate length of about 70-80 feet per truck, the convoy would run bumper to bumper for nearly 310 miles, which is ap
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

Even to transport the amount of spilled oil over land would pose a significant challenge.

A typical large-capacity tanker truck, much like the ones used to fill gasoline stations or carry liquids over land in large quantities, can carry loads of up to around 9,000 gallons. To carry the 184 million gallons spilled, you'd need the capacity of about 20,445 tanker trucks.

With an approximate length of about 70-80 feet per truck, the convoy would run bumper to bumper for nearly 308 miles, which is approximately the driving distance from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

If The Gulf Was A Football Stadium...

If the Gulf of Mexico - the 7th largest body of water in the world, containing approximately 660 quadrillion gallons of water (that's 660 with 15 zeros) - was represented by Cowboys Stadium in Dallas - the largest domed stadium in the world - how would the spill stack up? In this example, the amount of oil spilled into the gulf could be represented by a 24-ounce can of beer sitting on the 50 yard line. Cowboys stadium has an internal volume of approximately 104 cubic feet, compared to the just o
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

If the Gulf of Mexico - the 7th largest body of water in the world, containing approximately 660 quadrillion gallons of water (that's 660 with 15 zeros) - was represented by Cowboys Stadium in Dallas - the largest domed stadium in the world - how would the spill stack up?

In this example, the amount of oil spilled - if the Gulf of Mexico was the size of Cowboys Stadium - would be about the size of a 24 ounce can of beer.

Cowboys stadium has an internal volume of approximately 104 million cubic feet, compared to the just over 50 cubic inches of volume in a 24-ounce can.

Just like the can, the spilled oil represents only .00000002788% of the liquid volume present in the Gulf of Mexico, although as the oil is dispersed, the amount of water affected becomes substantially greater.

Comparison To Proven Reserves

How much oil was spilled in comparison to the oil that's still out there? Although the unprecedented amount of oil unleashed on the gulf is a tragic disaster, it turns out that when compared to the world's proven reserves, it is negligible. According to the US government, the world's proven reserves are estimated to be around 1.36 trillion barrels, making the BP oil spill almost invisible by comparison, accounting for only .000322% of the world's total reserves. The spill would have to occur abo
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

How much oil was spilled in comparison to the oil that's still out there? Although the unprecedented amount of oil leaked in the gulf is a tragic disaster, it turns out that when compared to the world's proven reserves, the amount is negligible.

According to the US government, the world's proven reserves are estimated to be around 1.36 trillion barrels, making the BP oil spill almost invisible by comparison, accounting for only .000322% of the world's remaining known oil. The BP spill would have to occur about 310,431 more times to deplete all of the world's reserves.

Compared to the reserves of the world's most oil-rich country, Saudi Arabia, as well as the reserves of the US, the BP spill still remains tiny, and would represent only .001670% of Saudi Arabia's reserves and .0209% of the remaining known reserves in the United States. The spill would have to occur 4,793 more times to deplete the remainder of America's untapped oil.

The World's Largest Wind Farm

BP reports that it has spent $3.5 billion on the response, while the market value of spilled oil is approximately $336 million. If that $3.86 billion was used to purchase horizontal-axis wind turbines, which are seen on most wind farms, the money could have purchased approximately 1,930 1.5 mW wind turbines, at approximately $2 million each. The resulting wind farm would the world's largest wind farm, with a potential power capacity of 2,895 mW, nearly quadrupling the energy output of the Roscoe
Image: Paul Alvord for CNBC.com

As of July 17th 2010, BP reported that it has spent $3.5 billion on the response, while the market value of spilled oil is approximately $336 million.

If that $3.86 billion was used to purchase horizontal-axis wind turbines, which are seen on most commercial wind farms, the money could have purchased approximately 1,930 1.5 MW wind turbines, at approximately $2 million each.

The resulting wind array would create the world's largest wind farm, with a potential power capacity of 2,895 MW, nearly quadrupling the energy output of the Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which is currently the world's largest.

By comparison, the Roscoe wind farm currently has 627 turbines capable of generating about 781 MW, that came with a price tag of approximately $1 billion.

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