Oil spill: Here's what you can do to help

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Drive less.

Yeah, OK, that's pretty simplistic. But the point is: You and I are not helpless bystanders in this mess. Offshore drilling—especially deepwater offshore drilling—is not a simple project that BP and other oil companies get involved in for the giggles. They do it because there is a demand for the oil. If we were to completely and permanently halt offshore drilling in this country, it wouldn't fix the problem. In 2009, 1.7 million barrels of oil were produced, every day, from offshore wells in United States. That's a drop in the bucket compared to our 19.5 million barrel a day consumption, or even the almost 9 million barrels of gasoline we burn through every day.

But that doesn't mean offshore oil is inconsequential. If we don't get it here, we'll still get it from somewhere. And that has consequences, both for our pocketbooks and the environment. (Canada is the biggest exporter of oil to the United States. Eliminating offshore wells and increasing our use of tar sands is not exactly a healthy trade off.) Plus, as Jeff Vail of the Oil Drum blog told me, this model—complicated, risky drilling for a relatively small amount of oil—is the future. We simply aren't finding a lot more of those big, easily accessed wells that fueled the past century.

These are the facts. And there's basically two ways of looking at them. One perspective assumes that U.S. oil consumption will only increase, that we must have this resource. Thus, we must have offshore wells. And lots of them.

The other perspective: It's time to actually get serious about reducing our oil demand. With a 9% reduction in national daily gasoline consumption, we could eliminate our need for offshore oil. At 22.4 miles per gallon, that's just 4.2 fewer miles of driving, per person, per day.

Bill Finch at The Nature Conservancy did this calculation back in May, but his numbers are a bit off from what I'm seeing on the Energy Information Administration site, so I'm going to do this again, real quick. I've made it easy to skip if your eyes glaze over.

Here is where we start talking about statistics and numbers

1.7 million barrels: Amount of oil produced by all offshore drilling in U.S. waters, per day.

About 20 gallons of motor gasoline can be made from each 42-gallon barrel of oil

So offshore drilling represents about 34 million gallons of gasoline per day.

Total U.S. daily consumption of gasoline: 378 million gallons per day. This number only includes the kind of gasoline that runs the average car. Aviation and jet fuel, diesel fuel for commercial trucking, that's all extra. We aren't dealing with that here.

To eliminate the need for the amount of gasoline represented by offshore oil, we have to reduce daily gasoline consumption by about 9%.

US daily vehicle travel averages out to about 40 miles per person, per day. The average driver actually does a bit better than that: 29 miles per day. But, because we're talking about national rates of consumption, we're going to stick to that scale and talk about national mileage.

22.4: Miles per gallon the average car gets in the United States.

At 40 miles of travel, an American with an average car would use about 1.8 gallons of gasoline per day. A 9% reduction means taking that down to about 1.6 gallons, or 35.8 miles of travel. 4.2 miles per day less.

There's a possibility that I'm missing something here, either in the logic or the math, that one of you will point out to me. But as I figure it, them's the facts.

Here is where we stop talking about statistics and numbers

Obviously, this is a little difficult to apply on an individual level, as we all drive different amounts and have vehicles with a wide variety of gas mileages. But we can all reduce the amount of gasoline we consume by 9%. And there's a wide variety of ways to can get there: Combine trips, drive a vehicle with better gas mileage, take public transportation, carpool with friends and neighbors, walk or bike instead, find shorter routes, or even just skip a trip. You just use your odometer to figure out your average daily mileage each week, and to figure how many miles per gallon your car is really getting. Then mix and match the solutions to reduce your daily gasoline consumption by 9%.

I'm not going to pretend that this is simple. It takes some restructuring of the way we live, and it takes planning where you didn't have to plan before.

But, if we really don't want another Deepwater Horizon spill, this is part of the solution. We can't complain about BP's greed, the government's lack of oversight and everybody's post-spill floundering and not acknowledge the part of the blame that lies on our shoulders. We wanted that oil. We wanted that oil cheap. In giving us what we wanted, BP and the government made some horrible decisions that we wish they wouldn't have made.

They picked up a gun, loaded it and shot into the dark. But we're the ones who told them that the night was full of zombies. Can we really say we're not responsible when they accidentally kill a healthy toddler?

So, cutting our daily gasoline consumption by 9%. Some of it will be fun—biking, chatting with friends in a carpool, coming up with new activities to do within walking distance, instead of driving for our entertainment. Other times, it will be a pain in the ass. But, that's our responsibility. That's what we owe for our role in this mess.

Image courtesy Flickr user midorisyu, via cc

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