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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.

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.