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I Caused the Deepwater Horizon Spill

Americans should view the BP spill as a reminder of overconsumption's devastating price. Instead, we're using more oil than before.
 
 
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The Deepwater Horizon disaster is my fault. Yours too.

Sure, BP, Halliburton and Transocean made egregious technical and oversight errors, but let’s be clear: All those oily birds and tar balls washing onto beaches -- that putrid, iridescent slick we can see from space -- those are because of us. It’s time to admit this to ourselves. 

Let’s back up. Shortly after the rig blew, I, along with hundreds of millions of other Americans, was putting gas in my car -- a ‘99 Saturn sedan with a busted sunroof and about 138,000 miles on the odometer. I don’t commute, but I probably drive around 6,000 miles per year and fill up once every week and a half.

My knowledge of the disaster was limited: I had read that there were 11 dead workers, a massive explosion and some sort of leak. For me, the incident’s full environmental magnitude had not yet surfaced, so to speak.

One week passed. Then two. Then six. I learned more about the geyser, the dispersants and the cluster of regulatory missteps. I, along with much of the country, began thumbing my nose at the MMS, then filling up my gas tank anyway.

Which brings us up to today. Right now, the amount of oil sliming up the Gulf of Mexico varies, depending on where you look. Conservative estimates put the daily spew somewhere between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels (around 500,000-800,000 gallons); but some scientists say it’s closer to 100,000 barrels, or 4,200,000 gallons. While the lower estimate is indeed horrific, the higher one is nearly unimaginable -- the equivalent of one new Exxon Valdez disaster every 60 hours.

If we idealistically assume that the lower rate has remained constant since the initial blowout on April 20 (though this is a tricky hypothesis, since some scientists now believe a recent attempt by BP to divert the flow actually made it heavier), then we can guess that there are between 24,000,000 and 40,000,000 gallons of oil currently sitting in the Gulf of Mexico.

Forty million gallons. If this number sounds massive, that’s because it is. But it’s nowhere near as large as 6,820,471,000 – the amount of crude and oil petroleum products (in gallons) supplied to the United States in 2009. Nor can it touch 223,020,000, which is roughly the number in gallons of oil America produces in just one day. While it may be true that Obama’s expansion of offshore drilling was a step toward energy independence, there’s another fact buried there, too: our hyper-consumption was -- and remains -- the main catalyst for new energy production. If given the chance, most of us would not have hesitated to use the very oil that’s now polluting our gulf. I know I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

Just how addicted are we? Take a look at this graph of total gasoline sales in the United States over the past 30 years: it's like a home run’s aerial trajectory -- a nearly exponential “going, going, gone” of constant intake. Between 1983 and 2005, the United States upped the amount of gasoline it was buying from 287,126,300 gallons to 378,473,400 gallons per day. That number has dipped a bit in the past few years, but we’re still devouring at a rate that’s neither healthy nor environmentally sustainable.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics etches a similar statistical arc when it comes to the volume of automobiles on America’s roads. Since 1960, the number of cars we drive has increased by about 342 percent – a jump from around 72 million to more than 254 million. That’s a whopping statistic, especially when you consider that the average fuel economy in passenger vehicles has actually been decreasing for much of the past 25 years. Though President Obama has vowed to boost mile per gallon requirements to 35.5 by 2016, we’re still doing only slightly better than we were in 1990 while consuming at a much higher rate.

And driving is only half of the story. The other half involves the actual money we’re spending in order to keep driving -- and who gets that money.

Example: Nineteen years after its own catastrophic spill, Exxon Mobil revealed that it had set the world record for quarterly and yearly earnings by a publicly traded company. Thanks in large part to skyrocketing gas prices (and our willingness to pay those prices) the company took in a $40.61 billion profit in 2007 -- a rate of earning that ends up working out to about $1,300 per second.

And before the Deepwater Horizon blew, BP (the top oil producer in the U.S. as of 2007, with an output of 640,000 barrels every day) was enjoying a staggering degree of economic success. According to its 2010 report on first quarter results (pdf), the company took in more than $6 billion in profit this year. That’s a 135 percent increase from its first quarter profits in 2009, and a 237 percent jump from the same period in 2008. Line these numbers up next to our consumption graph, and you’d be astonished how similar they look.

More astonishing though are the findings of a study published June 10 by the International Energy Agency. According to the IEA, Americans, in spite of the ongoing crisis, have actually increased the amount of oil we’re consuming by such an extent that it’s driven up world demand by around 2 percent.

Let me repeat that: we are buying more oil now than we were before BP ruined the gulf.

“This revision stems from stronger preliminary readings, notably in North America, where distillate demand appears to have surged in May as the economic recovery gained traction,” the report states. In 2010, the total worldwide demand will rise by 1.7 million barrels, to a record 86.4 million barrels. All thanks to us.

Granted, all of this cannot be boiled down to a simple cause/effect correlation. After all, not all petroleum is used to power cars, and there are numerous supply and demand factors at work – it’s not as simple as “they produce, we buy.” Moreover, the leak itself is a product of technical malfunctions and gross lapses in oversight; it’s not like American citizens are getting together and pouring gasoline into the ocean.

But we aren’t exactly taking a dramatic stand, either. Anti-BP boycotts are problematic or misdirected; and while BP’s stock has plummeted, we’re still behaving like nothing happened. We’re still driving. We’re still coughing up cash for BP and Exxon Mobil. We’re still wagging our own oil-stained fingers at the same companies supplying us with a deadly fix -- like drug addicts condemning and copping at the same time.

Enough accusations. The sooner we point those fingers back at ourselves, the sooner we can attack the root cause of the BP spill: reckless overconsumption on the part of me, you and the rest of America. If we don’t take responsibility for what we’ve wrought, the punchline of this farce will remain buried -- smothered by our own mucky arrogance.

Byard Duncan is a contributing writer and editor for AlterNet.