In Deep Water: Can we afford to spill any oil?

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

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  • Alex

    It looks like the Jamaica comparison graph is wrong. At 10,700km^2 area, the circle would have a radius of sqrt(10,700)/pi ~= 66km, and Jamaica is around 230km long from the west end to its east end. Using the size of Jamaica as a guide, that circle looks to be ~100km in radius, which gets an area of ~31,400km^2, which is a pretty big over-exaggeration.

  • Alex Mitchell

    hey, just wanted to thank you for contextualising this information. information is useless if it can not be tangibly understood and utilised within the scope of our own lives. you’re helping.

  • murph

    You’re listing a barrel of oil as equal to 19 gallons or 86 liters.
    I believe a standard barrel is more than double that.

    • david

      @murph A barrel of oil is 42 gallons of oil. On average, 19 gallons of petrol are extracted.

  • TM

    You’ve got something mixed up. If one barrel of oil is enough to fill to fuel tanks, then how can 450,000 barrels only fill 225,000 cars?

  • TM

    Correction – to fill *two* fuel tanks

    • david

      @tamara thank you for correction – we uploaded the wrong version. Now fixed.

  • vince

    The tragedy in the Gulf is one very clear indicator of why low-risk energy sources like windmills and solar are preferable, even if more expensive, than high-risk environmentally unfriendly sources like fossil fuels, In fact one big spill simply nullifies all arguments against clean/green energy. Nuclear cannot be considered clean because of the accident risk and the unresolved decommissioning and long-term environmental risks. Oil is also in its last major cycle and it is clearly not a good idea to go looking for more along pristine coastlines, under Arctic ice, etc. So the debate has run its course. Throw money, lots of it, at wind power, wave power, solar power and any new ecologically clean source of energy, It’s cheaper than the clean-up of spills and nuclear contaminants that seemed to be favoured by conservative thinkers of all political persuasions.

  • Bevans

    Great graphic, as always.

    My only concern is that the size of the average gas tank you’re using seems very small. My own mid-size Oldsmobile has a tank that holds about 16 gallons. A 9.5 gallon tank on a car seems very small.

  • nailgun

    Unless I’m reading it wrong, an oil barrel contains 42 gallons of petroleum product, not 19 gallons as displayed at top of the graph. You might want to update.

  • Maitri
  • Joss Winn

    The total reserves figure is contested by a lot of analysts. A recent paper argues that it’s around 850m barrels, rather than the 1255m you refer to. Over-reporting since the 1980s due to the ‘fight for quotas’ whereby OPEC agreed to set export quotas in proportion to reserve volumes, and the inclusion of tar-sands into reserve estimates since 2004 have distorted reality.

  • carl myhill

    I dont know what is worse, the amount we spill or the amount we burn in our cars.

  • Uthor

    Yes, my small car holds 14 gallons. My sister’s midsize holds at least 16.

  • Ethan I.

    Yeah, where did the gas tank data come from? My Camry has an 18.5 gallon tank, and my Cavalier (smaller car) has ~14 gallon tank. Maybe there are much smaller cars on the road then I realize?

  • Casey Peel

    Not sure if it’s a regional thing or what, but I agree with Bevans – all three cars I’ve owned here in the US hold between 12 and 15 gallons.

  • Rene Grothmann

    The use of circles to represent amounts is always problematic, since the area increases with the square of the radius, which is completely counter-intuitive. E.g. it is hard to guess, which portion of the black circle is covered by the red circle above. I think lengths are more appropriate for that purpose.

  • http://None Tom Fuller

    There is no reason to base the “Time to recover” on Exxon Valdez. That incident involved heavy crude, the Deepwater Horizon incident is a far lighter and more disperseable crude. A more relevant comparison would be An oil spill in Shetland caused when a tanker ran aground in a sensitive environment resulted in 620,000 barrels of Norwegian light crude being lost to the sea. The stormy conditions which hastened the sinking of the ship appears to have helped break up the slick, and the overall environmental impact was far less severe than anyone dared hope.

    “At first, it looked as if this oil spill would be on par (in terms of damage) with the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. However, the accident turned out to be relatively harmless even
    though it was the twelfth largest spill in history (“A Disaster That Wasn’t,” Discover, January 1994, p. 69.). The damage to the wildlife was as follows:

    “The official death tolls — the number of carasses recovered — included 1,542 seabirds, several thousand pounds of commercially farmed salmon, 10 gray seals, and 4 otters. Two of the otters were run over by a camera crew covering the spill, however, and the other
    two probably died of old age” (Ibid.).

    “Quite clearly the damage could have been much worse. A year after the incident occured there is no glaring sign that the oil spill even happened. Except for shellfish in a very limited
    area, all official restrictions on seafood originating from the Shetlands have been removed.”

    Here’s hoping the results are similar in this case.

    [Thank you for this excellent info! David]

  • Jason

    It’s not a regional thing, i guess. my cars (germany) had 10.5 and 13 gallons (40l & 50l small and medium sized cars) which is already above the mentioned average.

  • toxymoron


    There is a small bug. One barrel of oil is 42 US gallons (159 litres), so the 19 gallons seems wrong, but the two-car figure is about right.

  • Arnaud

    Nice visualization!

    2 notes (for the second version of the diagram ;-) ):
    - It’s “Amoco Cadiz” and not “Amoco Caldiz”
    - It would have been interesting to see also the “worst case” scenario:
    90 days at 25,000 barrels a day (according to Wikipedia), which is 2,250,000 barrels (and largely surpass the Amoco Cadiz)!

  • oily jim

    Always admire these pages. Just one point, following correction of “Amoco Cadiz” – think it was in 1978, not 1967 (are you thinking of fellow catastrophe Torrey Canyon)

    [Yep, fixed, thanks for that! David]

  • keeno

    I’ve read some pretty interesting things about peak oil, and they’re generally all pretty terrifying!

    World War 3? well, maybe not, but you can bet your arse there’s gonna be plenty more battles over oil in the coming years!

  • john felleman

    “remaining proven reserves” ” 1,255,104 barrels”
    PLEASE pay attention to flagrant misrepresentation of significant figures.

  • Don Richardson

    I concur with the comments about the size of the gas tanks – of all the cars I’ve owned, the smallest gas tank was 10 gallons – and that was a Volkswagen Rabbit. All of the others I’ve personally owned have been significantly larger. Maybe you’re talking worldwide average tank size, as opposed to average tank size in the U.S.?

  • buck

    how do 3 cute icons of sea animals help visualize that it will take 30 years for wildlife recovery?

    how does a cute icon of a petrol/gas pump handle visualize that a barrel contains 19 gallons?

    that’s not information visualization, it’s filler, which only obscures the ‘information’ you’re trying to present. What a waste of time, but it sure does look pretty.

    [In fairness, I'd say it was information design, and that each image was an iconographic representation of the info being presented. Kind of filler, yeah. Thanks! David]

  • John

    would be nice to see a comparison with Ixtoc 1 which was also as undersea blowout in the Gulf.

  • Dakota


    Your graphic appears to be wrong.

    One barrel of Oil contains 42 US Gallons not 19.

    “A 42-U.S. gallon barrel of crude oil provides slightly more than 44 gallons of petroleum products. This gain from processing the crude oil is similar to what happens to popcorn, which gets bigger after it is popped.”

    Still a good graphic.

    Please recalculate and recreate it.


  • Em

    I think the graph is being conservative about the average gas tank to continue establishing a “best case scenario” formula. People who are still pro off-shore drilling are more likely to absorb such a graph if it doesn’t appear to be an extremist estimation.

  • David

    I would suggest that you might want to change the gallons reference to imperial gallons (yes I know litres are referred to in the caption) and likewise the equal sign to an approximation sign ≈ as North American refineries operate differently (more gasoline) than European ones (more diesel). Finally perhaps as a subtext defining the size/fuel tank capacity of the cars?

  • Bill

    Er, standard measures for a barrel of oil is 42 US gallons, or nearly 159 liters.

  • Steve Workman

    I think the small sounding fuel tank is definitely a regional thing. Here in the US our vehicles (along with a lot of our backsides) are generally much bigger than most other places in the world. For instance, the Ford Focus in the US is marketed and sold as a small compact while elsewhere it is sold as a small family car. Bigger vehicles, bigger fuel tanks, bigger consumers of oil.

  • John L. Clark

    I think it would be illuminating to include, along with that “proven reserves” circle, a circle on the same scale showing “total oil consumed, ever”. Based on the EIA’s World Petroleum Consumption, 1960-2007 table, the total oil consumed between 1960 and 2007 was 1,039,575 million barrels of oil. In addition, M. King Hubbert summarized that “by the end of 1955 the cumulative production amounted to about 53 billion barrels”, so you could add on at least another 53,000 million barrels to that figure. I don’t have a good reference for the period between 1955 and 1960, although it is likely about 26,000 million barrels based on trends both before and after that period.

    Do you have source files (such as SVG or layered graphics in a proprietary format) for your images (in particular, for this image) available anywhere?

  • Matthew Herrmann

    the 29 year estimate also doesn’t factor in advances in technology. It’s almost like an exponential curve. The reserve will get smaller and smaller, but we’ll never quite reach zero.

    I only point this out, because it’s the chink in an otherwise well made and compelling visual argument. And as we’ve seen in other issues (death boards for US health care, “skewed data” with global climate change) one chink can destroy an otherwise strong argument.

  • jay

    It looks like the comparison the the exxon spill is wrong too…so far it is only about 1/3 as big as the exxon according to: at 3.3 million gallons…

  • Andrea

    It will be never too late to switch to decimal numeral system… enjoy it!

  • r4i gold

    The two incidents cost BP billions of dollars and drew scrutiny from U.S. politicians and regulators. The White House said no new areas of offshore oil drilling would be allowed until a review was conducted of the spill. I love these things, but it needs to gain more attention to people. As to the fall-out whether it was an act of domestic terrorism or not, I agree here, too, we cannot let this stop us drilling off-shore.

  • brighter day gang

    @M.Herrmann – I think the point of these visualizations is to introduce the average person to the basic problems. Now, this isn’t necessarily directed at you, but I guess we could all sit around and pin our hopes that the scientist might find the grand solution, but why not be more active and include as many people as possible in the problem solving. If this just helps 1000 people become aware of the issue and thus help alter their lifestyle just a little bit, that’s more time to work on the “mass” solution. Ultimately, i believe the answer lies in educating all people to the problems at hand – a great one being that by cutting back on industry/travel, there will be a great affect on the current global economy as it is set-up, thus, creating other major problems as we are starting to see.

  • john

    this thing is so completely wrong. i already saw the area of Jamaica, the number of gallons in a barrel and the size of the gas tank covered. the biggest error is the amount of oil coming out of the well !! this graphic shows 5,000 gal/day HA! try 200-250,000 per day. not to mention that peak oil is a scam….it’s called false scarcity.

  • Carl Henderson

    That has to be one of the most deceptive graphics I’ve ever seen.

    Leaving aside the fact that people tend to misjudge the relative sizes of circles in area-based graphs, the scale on the top row of circles is 186,714 TIMES LARGER than the scale on the bottom “Remaining Proven Oil Reserves Circle”.

    On the scale of the “Remaining Proven Oil Reserves” circle, the “Worst Case” spill circle” is invisible.

    Even worse, there nothing in the figure to to indicate scale changes save for a horizontal dotted line, which is the same graphic element dividing every sections of the graphic.

    (my math)

    Remaining Proven Oil Reserves Circle

    diameter = 6.9″ (taken by measuring the circles in Illustrator)
    diameter = 3.45 (radius = 1/2 diameter)
    Area = pi * r^2
    Area = 3.14 * 3.45
    Area = 10.83
    10.83 in area = 1,255,104,000,000 barrels
    Each 1 of area = 115,891,412,742 barrels


    Worst Case Circle

    diameter = 1.85″ (taken by measuring the circles in Illustrator)
    radius = 0.925 (radius = 1/2 diameter)
    Area = pi * r^2
    Area = 3.14 * 0.925
    Area = 2.90
    2.90 in area = 1,800,000 barrels
    Each 1 of area = 620,690 barrels


    115,891,412,742 (Proven Reserves) / 620,690 (Worst Case) = 186,714

    • david

      @Carl Thanks for the detailed maths! Dotted lines (horizontal & vertical) are used to denote a scale change across the graphic.

  • A. Bosch

    > The reserve will get smaller and smaller, but we’ll never quite reach zero.

    Thanks for that…I was thinking this as I was reading. We’ll never run out of oil. Ever. It will become gradually more and more expensive, requiring more and more prudence in its use, and will spur more and more creative solutions for its replacement in transportation and energy generation.

  • Alycia

    I think your next visualization should be a graphic depicting all of the different petroleum products that a barrel of oil produces. From the comments, it seems people think the only thing we use oil for is gas.

  • Charlene Grainger

    Any chance of an updated graphic, now that those figures are shown to have been grossly underestimated?? (they’re now saying up to 50,000 barrels a day)

  • anthony morrison

    No its actually not an easy job, we can pour oil into water easily but mixing it water is very difficult. One know how can they maintain using it but through its not that easy it is.

  • Fancelli

    Put an inflattable seal (ball)to stop any spillage

  • Chris Holmes

    Curse you, McCandless! Always beating me to the punch!

  • Brian Burchett

    My American friends are getting confused by the difference between American and Imperial gallons …

  • _meat_

    Hi David – the graphic is great and very clear to understand. I thought you might be interested in the GOOD graphic depicting offshore drilling in the US compared to global production.

    US production of oil is 1.6% of global production, with offshore drilling contributing only 21.4% to that grand US total.

    The time for thinking about alternatives arrived 30 years ago and maybe we should step it up a little.

    I’m going for a bike ride.

  • Lisa LaSalle

    I agree with Alycia that a graph of what other products are made from petroleum besides is gas. Worst case scenario now in June is that 200,000 gallons of oil a day, or more? are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico with the flow of oil growing with the different attempted repairs to the leak. Perhaps an updated graphic for June ? I wish by the time I write this its not needed, but sadly an update is called for already.

  • Lyle

    On the time to recover for the gulf. There are a couple of differences between the gulf spill and the Valdez. First as noted the kind of oil. Second because there are natural seeps in the gulf, albeit not in the volume of this spill, there exist native bacteria that will overtime have a feast. Third its much warmer in the gulf than Alaska so bacteria function much faster than in Ak. I have not seen a lot of documentation but it appears that Ixtoc did not produce damage that lasts till today. The temp means that the bacteria work faster. Despite the worries a major hurricane will break the oil into smaller and smaller particles and help more of it evaporate as the oil is in the spray. It will not be good for any land area it hits as the land will get an oil coating however.

  • Sisyphus

    “How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered failsafe?”

    Indeed, the system shutdown design of this so-called “Blowout Preventer” device is simply incredible. Were the designers of this subassembly impaired? A high school auto-shop class could have done a better job here.

    Sick as it sounds, upcoming investigation efforts will likely result in no corrective action with respect to this glaring issue; and will simply focus on finger-pointing with respect to the installation, maintenance, and operation of the device as it was designed.

    So take heart, Cameron company; you’ll be safe from having to “do the right thing” and change your design. BP and Transocean et al, don’t worry; they’ll never require you to correctively retrofit these electromechanical abominations which you have scattered about the seafloors of the world.

    And everyone else, be at ease; the media and your governments will tell you “everything is under control.”

    20 minutes into the future…

  • Rent French Chateau

    Really, It is well said. Special interests have too much influence. We need to at least take their money out of the electoral process to give politicians more leeway to do what is for the common good of the country.