Gulf Spill Update: The Numbers Don’t Lie

Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.

In Louisiana last weekend, oil flowed under booms, it went around booms, it found miles of marsh where booms were never deployed.

Jeff Dequattro, our oyster project director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, watched it happen, even as he was setting out more booms to help protect a major new Conservancy oyster restoration project along Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Out in the middle Gulf, immense pools of oil are wrapping around the sea of sargassum weed — which was, after the marshes, the Gulf’s most important nursery for fish.

All the donated human hair and animal fur that has been flown around the country to staunch the flow has now been deemed a waste of time and fuel oil.

And the hole in the floor of the Gulf keeps spewing oil at a rate that the oil industry seems fearful of calculating.

A sickening sense of helplessness has set in, even among scientists.

“We get it,” one frustrated reader wrote. “Now what do we do?”

Once the damage in the Gulf is assessed, there will be much the American community will need to do, and can do, to repair some of the damage there.

Meanwhile, most of us console ourselves by blaming the companies, blaming the regulators, blaming the slow response, even as we continue to participate in that great conspiracy — every time we fill up our cars with Gulf Coast gas.

If you want to do something right now, do it with these numbers in mind:

  • 59 gallons: Average volume of motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in Europe.
  • 428 gallons: Motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in the United States.
  • 620%: Percentage by which U.S. gasoline usage for vehicles exceeds that of Europe.
  • 9.989 million barrels: Amount of oil used for gasoline each day in the United States.
  • 1.8 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil saved each day if U.S. gasoline consumption were only 500% greater than consumption in Europe.
  • 1.75 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil produced each day by all offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, great: We could eliminate the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production if we reduced our driving so that we only used 5 times, rather than 6.2 times, as much gasoline for motor vehicle travel as Europeans do.

But we wouldn’t want to set a goal for ourselves that would require real sacrifice, would we? So how painful would it be to reduce our gasoline consumption by 20 percent?

Look at these numbers:

  • 190 miles: Average miles driven, per person per week, in the United States.
  • 5.4 miles: Average number of miles per day we’d have to reduce our driving to eliminate dependency on oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • 38 miles: Average number of miles per week we’d have to reduce our driving.

Some drive more, some less. Watch your odometer to see how many miles you drive, and what your 20 percent cut looks like.

But a significant number of Americans could eliminate America’s reliance on Gulf of Mexico oil production simply by carpooling to work with one other person 2 or 3 days per week. Those who have good access to efficient public transportation could make a giant contribution. I can almost eliminate my dependency simply by hopping on the bicycle for a pleasant 10-minute ride (2.5 miles) to my office.

Many of us would claim we can’t possibly reduce gasoline consumption because we have no choice but to drive our cars to work. Fine.

So review these calculations from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey: No matter how you look at it, only 20 to 30 percent of the average American’s car miles are devoted to commuting to work.

The biggest single chunk of travel — nearly one-third of the total, or about 60 miles per week for the average person — was purely for socializing and entertainment (that doesn’t include trips to school and church, family business such as doctors trips, or shopping). The biggest percentage increase in travel over the past several decades has been the result of shopping trips: Our mileage there has almost doubled, and accounts for nearly 15 percent of travel.

Do you care enough about what’s happening in the Gulf to combine shopping trips with the commute to work?

Of course, where you live in relation to your work and your favorite social spots can play a significant role in how much gas you use. Would the collapse of the Gulf’s fishing industry matter enough to you that you’d consider that next time you bought a new house?

Reducing our gas usage doesn’t prevent anyone from drilling for oil anywhere, but it sure reduces the incentives for it. More than 70 percent of the oil used in the U.S. goes to transportation, and U.S. oil consumption is nearly three times higher than any other country, so our driving exerts a whopping influence on world oil prices.

In the absence of higher prices for oil, it’s hard to imagine oil companies would be making tremendously expensive, risky and controversial decisions to drill for oil miles beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s no consolation for the damage already being done to our beautiful and once productive Gulf.

BP and others involved in the Deepwater Horizon project are responsible for the spill. But if we can’t reduce our driving by 5.4 miles a day, I think we need to look at our own responsibility, too.

Figures used in this article were obtained from the United Nations International Energy Agency, Statistics Division; the World Resources Institute; the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook; the U.S. Federal Highway Administration; and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Comparisons of per capita gasoline usage reflect 2005 data, which can be compared across all countries. Per capita usage based on ISIC Divisions 60, 61 and 62.

(Image: Oil hitting the shores of Grand Isle, Louisiana last Friday, near The Nature Conservancy’s field station there. Image credit: Jeff DeQuattro/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Thank you for this Bill.

    This is the message that a lot of people want to hear from Mark Tercek and TNC in general.

    This oil gusher is the natural consequence of our lifestyle.

  2. One thing Europe has that we do not have is good rail service that is mostly electric. Gas prices are so high there that people actually use public transportation instead of owning a car.

    We have cut our consumption by planning our errands and walking more. We would rather take the train to Atlanta to visit our kids as well, but alas…there isn’t one.

  3. Interesting commentary, although I would think most people here reading this already know about most of what you are saying, the phrase is; “preaching to the choir.” Sometimes we do need to be reminded of what our oil consumption is doing. For example the tar sands exploitation in Canada is causing similar environmental damage.
    A recent survey found that 12% of consumers are very aware and will pay a premium for what they are buying based on the “greenness” of the product. 10% of consumers don’t care and want their product to be absolutely the cheapest. The other 78% would like their product to be “green” but also want value for money.
    Oil companies use their money for influence. We all have some kind of influence, and we can all do something. For example, installing solar panels, even if it never paid back in financial terms, or how about just installing a solar water heater, or what about talking to friends or family or co-workers or employers or people you do business with about installing some kind of solar or renewable energy.

  4. We could also lobby to get decent public transport. Since TNC is getting engaged in CC adaptation and lobbying congress, how about demanding decent reliable trains on the west coast for example, and reduce car usage. As Sherri notes in her comment, Europe has a decent public transport network. Taking away land previously used for crops was painful and caused strikes in France when the TGV tracks were set but the result of that effort by the government has really showed it was worthwhile. China has now committed to providing fast trains to its people but the US lag behind. The east coast of the US has at least a functional train system but trains on the west coast are woefully unreliable and scarce. In NM, thanks to its previous governor, there is a commuter train between Albuquerque and Santa Fe running on solar power. When will this public transport issue be taken seriously in Washington DC?

  5. The alternative to gasoline has been available for many years it is called propane. Check and see if any eighteen wheelers are powered by batteries or fuel cells then check and see how many are powered by LP. You will be surprised !
    There is too much money in an around gasoline to change. Too many people profit from our dependency on oil.
    The cost of conversion to LP is nominal and one can flip from one fuel source to another (gas to LP, LP to gas) what is lacking is refueling stations.

  6. It’s amazing. I’ve been making the same comment for weeks amongst family and friends. We’re so quick to blame big companies and the government for the oil spill and don’t hold ourselves responsible for providing the demand. I blame Americans for not educating themselves, not staying informed, not caring, and for not being part of the solution.

  7. 18 wheelers and many other diesels, including passenger cars and generators, can be powered with biodiesel. Waste vegetable oils or animal fats go thru a chemical conversion to become a fuel nearly equivalent to petroleum diesel, but with out the ugly spills or wars. Renewable, clean, domestic: what all our fuels should be. (and, yes, I do walk the talk: I use biodiesel blends in my VW TDI, 45+ mpg!)

  8. Hooray for this blog post.

  9. Frankly this news is nothing new at all and we shall inevitably be forced by resource crisis to change …and yet its calculus is comprehensively misleading, wholly eliminating the inclusion of the massive fossil fuel demands of the global military machine of the USA Capitalist Empire now and forever waging planetary war on humanity…more often an oil war and always of choice…..The US Military-Industrial Complex commands the world’s largest consumption of fossil fuel, larger than huge collective nations use combined.

    At this Memorial Day, who shall realistically equate how many civilian and soldier lives per gallon our life-styles cost???

    These numbers DO INDEED LIE! Conspicuously…

    how genteel…

  10. Nice Try Nature Conservancy,

    Shifting responsibility for this disaster from BP to the Public. It is even partially true.

    And it would seem Honest, if we didn’t know your very cozy relationship with BP over the years, including a BP executive on your board! This response is an insult to your membership, and it is pure hypocrisy! May you find that this “Artful Dodging” causes a marked reduction in your contributions and support from ordinary nature-conscious citizens, as opposed to Corporate Environmental Rapists such as BP. BP executives have made the decisions resulting in this bungling, immense beyond description, Catastrophe, primarily motivated by cost-clipping corner-cutting, which directly inflates their bonuses to obscene levels. And they throw you a pittance to furnish cover and polish their image.

    Why don’t you have the courage to respond to members outrage, accept culpability, and outline what response you are going to take for having been used as a Shill by BP? They obviously have no real interest in preserving the environment and the natural world, but are only driven by Greed to extract what they can as quickly and cheaply as possible.

    Disgustedly yours,

    Bruce D. Burleigh

  11. I also get your point. This is not going to make me stay with TNC (for the same reasons outlined by Bruce Burleigh), but I will watch my driving (I’ve been walking to work lately and I always try to combine auto trips) and I will not buy from several of the oil companies, including BP, Shell and Exxon. I also will limit my air travel, which is at least as bad as driving an SUV, from what I have read.

    Until we make drastic changes in how we live, including tackling that elephant in the room- population – we are doomed to a planet that looks something like that in Wall-E. We need a new economic theory, and if we can’t come up with one, we all are toast – at least civilization as we know it is. This will be my last comment.

  12. This oil gusher is not the natural consequence of our lifestyle. This oil gusher is the natural consequence of a secretive & greedy corporate culture that cut corners, took risks with no viable backup planning or investment, and sadly came to believe its own greenwashing. As did TNC.

    The anger toward BP for playing TNC as a useful idiot — and the anger at TNC for accepting that role — that permeates Mr. Burleigh’s comment above runs in my veins too.

    The total cost of this fiasco is likely to reach $10 billion. For the record, $10 billion could create enough wind farms in the U.S. to run nearly 2 million households. A large city, running carbon-free. Forever.

    Instead, it’s going to go toward trying desperately to repair & restore an ecosystem — and a culture — that didn’t need to be destroyed. The fault is BP’s. -BP-, your corporate partner, who didn’t do what they were supposed to do. And who to this day don’t have a viable answer for stopping the carnage.

    Any attempt to deflect blame or burden toward folks for not driving veggie oil or electric cars or living within walking distance of everything they need is a poor showing from your organization.

  13. The answer is a BIG hike in the gas tax.. Good will of individulas is not going to suffice to push down gas consumption. Why should a high cost of gas go into the pockets of oil companies and investors? Instead make gas expensive and put it in the (empty) pockets of government. Use some of the funds for enrgy conservation and to create 5- year no interst car loans to low income indivuals that cannot afford to buy more fuel efficient vehicles. May not solve the global demand for oil but could get a handle on the problem in the US.

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