Spinning the Barrel

Barrels of oilBP and the media express quantities of oil gushing from BP's leak in the Gulf in different ways. The amount of oil coming out of the leak is most frequently expressed in barrels, but how much is that? Can people really relate to a barrel as a quantity? After all, we buy staples like gasoline, milk, and water by the gallon. To make it even more complicated for the public to understand the quantities being discussed, the amount of liquid in a barrel varies with what is being measured. Barrels of chemicals or food, for example, contain 55 gallons. A whiskey barrel is 40 gallons; a barrel of beer contains 36 gallons; a barrel of ale contains 34 gallons. (And the latter two are imperial gallons, which are just under two-tenths more than an American gallon.) All these variations in the barrel as a quantity of measure only further confuse the concept of what a barrel of oil looks like. Moreover, since oil companies started shipping oil in tankers they rarely actually ship oil in barrels anymore, so the barrel as a measurement has less practical use.

Do the Math, Check Twice for Spin

When oil is coming out of the leak, BP tends to express the quantity in barrels, but when the company talks about how much oil it is collecting or incinerating, it will report the quantity in gallons. The day BP began burning siphoned oil from the ruptured well, for example, they reported that by noon that day they had burned 52,500 gallons of oil. It sounds like a significant amount, but that's just 1,250 barrels -- a microscopic amount compared to what is gushing from the blowout each day.

In any case, when reading or hearing news about the Gulf oil disaster, pay attention to how quantities are expressed. One barrel of crude oil equals 42 U.S. gallons, so multiply barrels by 42 to get the quantity being quoted in more familiar gallons. You may have to do some math to better interpret the quantities being discussed.


No way! I never hear quantities expressed in terms of barrels. The news always uses gallons, dude. They use gallons because the quantity is higher than barrels. makes it sound much worse than it is. Which I dn't understand because there is no reason to make it sound worse. It's already a lot worse than any of use realize at this pont. Wait until the oil stuck in the sand and sitting at the bottom of the ocean floor gets counted. So bad for the environment and the people living there. They are going to be dealing with this for so long.

How true. I have never known (until your article) how much oil was in a barrel vs a gallon. It's not that I don't care or don't want to know - it's just that I have never given it much thought. The networks do a good job of equating the spill to the size of states, for example. The latest was the spill now is as large as the state of Kansas - which is something most people can relate to when they see the graphic on the screen. No matter how it's measured, the devastating impact on the local business people is off the charts. That's a measurement we can all relate to - the dollar.

That's just the oil on the surface. Suppose the surface oil covered an area equal to that of West Virginia: what percentage of the volume of coal under that state would the underwater oil plumes amount to? :-)

You're right. They should be reporting the BP Spill in terms of TOTAL VOLUME AND SURFACE AREA. Volume per day is meaningless and is TINY compared to the total. "But Sir! Just ONE more, TINY wafer?" - Monty Python

It's not easy watching the media's coverage of this since they seem to feel the need to dumb everything down (to their own level of comprehension) and pander to the lowest common denominator. I'll bet the majority of them don't know or care how many gallons there are in a barrel.

When listening to the news reports from all the main news organizations, they seem to confuse people in the quantity of oil being spilled. They back and forth in discussing it in gallons and then in barrels. There doesn't seem to be any consistency in the unit of measure.

Wow, never thought of it until I read this article. New BP oil spill flow estimates: 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day - that's up to 1,680,000 gallons per day!

Your are suggesting that BP is still communicating even on matters that should be the concern of all of us. All of us are responsible of what happening and though I don't approuve this gallon/barrel way I feel responsible too as I often jump onto a six horses motorized bomb.

In 1998 BP smugly promoted the following ad. "We are bringing oil to the shores of America" If this resurfaces now and is circulated on the internet, it will be interesting to see how their PRs deal with it.