June 9, 2010 -- It's constantly on our computer and television screens, seared permanently into the country's collective conscious: grainy, night-vision green video of a busted pipe gushing crude oil deep below the Gulf of Mexico.
The image is nothing short of nightmarish and people are angry. But U.S. motorists still burn roughly 400 million gallons of gasoline every day, according to statistics from the Energy Information Agency.
Put another way, the BP leak (if estimates of its size are right) would need to bleed on, unfettered, for three more years to equal America's daily consumption.
No one is suggesting that the spill isn't catastrophic environmentally, particularly if coastal wetlands and ecosystems become imperiled. However, looking at the spill relative to America's mass consumption of oil-based products – gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, to say nothing of plastics – even calling it a drop in the bucket can begin to feel like a stretch.
"If we agree that the amount of oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico is an enormous quantity," said Gregor Macdonald, an independent energy analyst based in Amherst, Massachusetts, "then we must also agree, and need to acknowledge, that the amount of oil we consume every hour, every day, every year, is even larger, and that much more astonishing."
"The oil leaking in the Gulf could power a small country … for about two days," said Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at Chicago-based PFG Best.
In other words, Flynn said carefully, it is a vast amount of oil being spilled, and yet in the global economic picture it's relatively puny.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said revised estimates of how much oil has leaked into the Gulf could be released later this week. Until then, geologists and other experts have weighed in with estimates that range from 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day.
Compared to the worst oil spill of all time, the 1979 Ixtoc oil spill in Mexico, in which 140 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf over ten months, the BP disaster has not reached that scale. Not yet anyway. But even if it does, would oil consumption habits change?
Gusher of of Gas Guzzler Sales
A cursory glance at U.S. auto sales in May, the first full month after the spill, doesn't yield too much insight into whether Americans are truly moved to change as a result of the BP spill. Sales of gas-guzzling SUVs are on the rise, according to WardsAuto.com, which tracks vehicle sales. Some 71,373 SUVs were sold in May 2010 compared to 62,850 sold in May 2009.
However, auto sales in general are up as the economy has slowly began to recover, so inferences about America's fuel-efficiency concerns can't easily be drawn, said John Sousanis, director of information content at Ward's Information Products in Southfield, Michigan. After all, sales of hybrid vehicles were also up in May 2010 compared to a year earlier.
"Other than the gas price crisis in the summer of 2008, I've seen only slow evolutionary creeping changes in consumer behavior," Sousanis said. "The overall consumer market has been very slow to react to specific issues or events when it comes to making a choice at the dealership."
Writing Tuesday in the Orlando Sentinel, columnist Mike Thomas pointed out that Florida consumes 20 million gallons of gasoline a day, or around the equivalent of the BP spew every couple of days.
"Listening to Florida complain about oil drilling is like listening to a crack addict complain about drug pushers," Thomas wrote. "Just when do we wake up?"