NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

When I was young all the gas was so plentiful

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This blog post was originally published by Doug Helton on April 2, 2010.

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

Photograph of a Mobil Service gas station with an "Out of Gas" sign by the pumps, ca. 1974. Photographer is unknown. Washington State Archives/Digital Archives

I grew up in the ’70s. I remember the 1973-74 fuel embargo and waiting in long gas station lines in my parents’ gas-guzzling 1972 Ford Galaxie (12 mpg). In 1979, my dad parked that car and bought a diesel Volkswagen rabbit (45 mpg).

In high school, “The Logical Song,” a hit single from Supertramp’s 1979 album Breakfast in America, was quickly parodied in “The Topical Song.” The lyrics, “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,” became “When I was young, all the gas was so plentiful.”

The early ’80s post-apocalyptic movie “The Road Warrior” told the story of societal breakdown as violent gangs roamed the Australian Outback in search of the world’s most precious commodity: gasoline.

With that childhood, I never thought there would be any oil left when I grew up. I am sometimes amazed that 30 years later I work on oil spills.

Although our oil exploration, production, and transportation systems are remarkably safe and efficient, there are still thousands of oil spills every year in the United States. The goal of this blog is to share information on oil spill response and other related environmental challenges.

To get started, some perspective: Oil is still the predominant source of energy in the United States. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), we consume over 19.5 million barrels of petroleum every day. Domestic production accounts for only 43% of the demand, so we import 11,114,000 barrels a day.

That is a lot of oil, but how much is a barrel? And do they actually ship oil in barrels? A standard barrel is 42 gallons, but unless you live in a remote location like the Alaskan Bush, you will probably never see petroleum in a barrel. Why they picked a conversion unit as weird as 42 gallons is perhaps the subject of a future blog post.

So we use almost 20 million barrels a day: 840 million gallons of petroleum. And that oil is stored in tanks large and small, and transported in tankers, barges, pipeline, trucks, rail cars, and other containers. And everywhere oil is stored or transported, there is the potential for a spill.

Fortunately, only a minute fraction of that oil is spilled. According to a recent report by the American Petroleum Institute, for every barrel of oil used in the U.S., only 0.00003 barrels are spilled. This works out to about 9.1 million gallons spilled every year in the U.S. Enough to keep spill responders busy.

And what really keeps us busy is the knowledge that despite all of the best efforts and precautions, a major spill can happen any time. Transporting all that oil every day takes hundreds of ships and barges and thousands of miles of pipelines, and accidents happen. A single tanker can easily carry over 50 million gallons. Even a large freighter or cruise ship can carry a couple million gallons of fuel oil. It is not a matter of if, but when another large spill will happen in the U.S.

So look for future blog entries on spill response and restoration and related topics.

–Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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