Petroleum products from crude oil provide most of the energy powering automobiles, trucks, locomotives, ships, aircraft and other forms of transport, and account for about one-third of the total energy used in the U.S. If the crude oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon failure were to have been refined in a typical U.S. refinery, each barrel would have produced gasoline for cars and jet fuel for aircraft (clear products), diesel fuel for trucks and trains (brown products), and heavy fuel oil for ships (black products), among other products. Substitutes for conventional petroleum include alternate liquid fuels, electricity, and gaseous fuels.
Lost Energy of Spilled Oil in Context
While estimates of the daily rate of the spill (total barrels released) vary, we can estimate the lost petroleum energy in terms of its potential use. Comparisons are presented as a “reverse timeline” of crude oil released into the environment. Check back to see updates until efforts to stop the spill succeed, and click here for a pdf summary of the energy lost timeline. To learn more about the spill impacts, click here. Or follow the official Deepwater Horizon Spill Response Website.
Keep track with The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: N Days and Counting; and find your city or a city near you that could have used spilled energy to run their registered vehicles for a year.
Can We Reduce the Risk for Future Oil Spills?
If demand for petroleum energy increases, safer methods and stricter standards may better protect our resources from energy exploration and extraction. Despite this, "there there are inherent risks to drilling four miles beneath the surface of the Earth." This poses a basic risky decision that we must revisit in the aftermath of the Gulf spill.
What can we do within our communities to reduce demand for dangerous exploration miles beneath our oceans? We can use petroleum more effectively while we also pursue substitutes for conventional petroleum. Ideas being debated are fuel economy improvements for cars, for trucks, and for ships (and aircraft, and locomotives, etc.). President Obama recently called for "continuing our unprecedented effort to make ... our cars and trucks more energy-efficient."
To put this in terms of the Deepwater Horizon numbers (upadted using ~50,000 barrels per day release rate)1:
- If we improved automobile fuel economy to 35.5 mpg as proposed by the current administration, we would offset demand equivalent to the gasoline energy lost by 76 years of Deepwater Horizon daily releases.
- If we add only 2 mpg to fuel economy for trucks, as proposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, then we would offset diesel-driven energy demand equivalent to 4 years of Deepwater Horizon daily releases.
Note: Reality is more complicated than these comparisons, given growing transportation U.S. and global demand. Moreover, Collaborative and global sustainable intermodal freight transportation research initiatves are identifying new solutions for policymakers and business leaders across the supply chain.
Other suggestions include shifting some freight movement to rail and short sea shipping, and shifting passengers from single-occupant cars to carsharing/carpooling and better transit. Rebalancing how we transport goods would achieve substantial additional energy savings. A shift from truck to rail for specific commodities and routes would require about 20% of the energy per ton-mile compared to trucking. Achieving this would require an investment in infrastructure and green logistics to facilitate intermodal combinations of trucking and rail rather than treat the modes as competitors.
What could be achieved through better intermodal goods movement?
- If the market conditions, technologies, and infrastructure only accommodated 1% change in transport mode, then the energy savings could be tens of thousand times greater than the oil lost in the Gulf in the failed effort to fuel the status quo.
Professor James J. Corbett works on energy and environmental solutions for transportation in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware.
Comparisons assume 50,000 barrels per day is released from the Deepwater Horizon drill site, per the 15 June 2010 US Science Team updated estimate.
Automobile VMT is ~12,300 miles per year; Truck VMT is ~25,000 miles per year.
Ship fuel use data assumes the average containership calling on US ports uses about 100 tons fuel per day, and ~270 operating days per year. Actual data vary by vessel size, speed, and installed power.
Ship traffic data from the US Army Corps of Engineers Navigatino Data Center
Vehicle registration data is from the US Census
US highway mileage data from the US Census
Commodity flow data in ton-miles is from interactive tables at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Site Updated 16 June 2010