The massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is already making history. The well has been hemorrhaging oil for more than two months and is without a doubt the largest offshore spill the U.S. has ever faced. Here's a numerical look at the magnitude of the disaster and the enormous response.
The latest government estimates put the leaking well's flow rate at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, vastly greater than early estimates. Initially, BP estimated the flow at 1,000 barrels each day. Soon after, the official estimate rose to 5,000 barrels a day based on an analysis by an NOAA scientist, but this number was rapidly called into question by independent scientists who said the flow could be as high as 100,000 barrels per day. Ultimately, a government task force, the Flow Rate Technical Group, came up with the current estimate by incorporating better data and accounting for increased flow as a result of the riser cut. Scientists who served on the task force don't anticipate any further changes to the estimate.
As of June 30, the spill has released between 2 and 3.8 million barrels of oil, assuming 72 days of flow at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day and adjusted for the 508,700 barrels of oil BP has collected from the wellhead so far (using the containment systems currently operating, and the riser insertion tube that was used in late May). That means BP's spill is up to 15 times the size of the Exxon Valdez accident.
The gushing well is also releasing a vast quantity of natural gas (methane), much of which is dissolving into the water column. According to Steven Wereley, an engineer at Purdue University who worked with the Flow Rate Technical Group, the flow from the wellhead is actually about 70 percent gas and 30 percent oil—or about 3,000 cubic feet of gas per barrel of oil. So far, BP has flared nearly 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas collected by the containment systems at the site, but it's safe to say that many times that amount have been released into the water.
Only 4 hours, 24 minutes ... assuming that 3.8 million barrels have leaked. About 19 million barrels of oil are used each day in the United States. At least 65 million gallons of gasoline could have been produced from the amount of oil that has leaked, along with 36 million gallons of diesel and 14.2 million gallons of jet fuel.
About 520 miles (2.76 million feet) of boom—a floating barrier to oil—have been deployed to protect sensitive areas of the Gulf Coast. If laid out in a straight line, that length of boom would reach from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. Unfortunately, boom isn't perfect and can be overcome by the elements. High winds and waves, for instance, can send oily water sloshing right over it and on toward shore.
More than 42,000 people are currently working as part of the response operation. This includes workers onshore (cleaning up beaches and marshes, for instance) and workers at sea (skimming, conducting controlled burns, running subsea operations at the wellhead, etc). Nearly 7,000 boats and more than 100 airplanes have been taking part in the effort.
So far, BP has paid out about $128 million in claims filed by those who have lost income or sustained damage from the spill. The company says more than 80,000 claims have been submitted and that nearly 41,000 payments have been made. BP agreed in mid-June to create an independently administered $20 billion fund to cover damage claims from the spill.
More than a million gallons of dispersant have been applied to oil on the gulf's surface, and another 576,000 gallons have been sprayed directly into the oil that's gushing from the wellhead. This much dispersant has never before been used in U.S. waters, and this is the first time dispersant has been applied below the sea surface. Subsea dispersants have been used since mid-May, and so far, the EPA has found no evidence that they're doing ecological damage.
Since June 4, BP has flared nearly 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas that has been collected at the site. Additionally, more than 119,780 barrels of oil have been flared off the Q4000 vessel, and another 238,000 barrels of oil have been burned on the water surface during the 275 controlled burns that response workers have conducted so far.
Since the spill began, BP has been receiving a steady stream of suggestions for ways to stop the leak or clean up the oil. To date, 112,000 suggestions have been submitted; the company has been receiving 4,000 to 5,000 each day. These suggestions go through a 4-stage triage process, says BP spokesman Mark Proegler, and 324 so far have made it to the final step, which is field testing. Two noteworthy suggestions that have made it through this process are a mechanical method of separating oil from sand and Kevin Costner's machine for separating oil from water.
To date, skimmers (the boats that collect floating oil) have collected 670,700 barrels of oily water from the gulf's surface. The liquid collected by skimmers is typically 90 percent water and only 10 percent oil (this varies based on weather conditions and other factors), meaning that around 67,700 barrels of oil have been collected in this way.