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.


Like most people I've been watching this disaster with horror, dismay and anger at the spin. The way this disaster is being reported reminds me of Chernobyl when we were being told that the Radiation leak was in so many "Becquerels" Who knew what a becquerel was? and how could anyone relate to it. this disaster is being reported in exactly the same way, in terms that make it dificult to comprehend but with a little human interest thrown in here and there. One last point. I don't believe for minute that BP will pay for the clean up or anything else. Sure they'll front the money but in the end prices will go up and we will pay for it all at the pump.

I heard that the spill in the Gulf was just a drop in the occean when compared to the yearly oil spills that BP cause in the Niger Delta in Africa. BP has been a millionaire maker company for decades but the ruinous way they treat the planet is almost heartbreaking. Their executives have probably never even seen an oil spill let alone helped try and clear one up.

Great read may I say. It is a horrible thing that BP is getting away with this. If you ask me they should all be jailed for doing such a permanent irreversible amount of damage to our planet. There are alternative fuels, we just need to push them more! I recall the media covering it expressed as gallons not barrels. It doesn't matter to me since all of it is not good. I would prefer zero gallons/barrels into the sea.

The confusion with barrels and gallons is just a way to cover the real size of the spill. They should tell us how many US dollars have been leaked in the sea...

Sadly, it will always be the case for a large business corporation to use the smallest number when representing their shortcomings, but the largest possible numbers to represent their strong points. Public perception is vital to a corporation.

Wow. Thanks for the insight. I never imagined it being so much. Its a trerrible tragedy.

When i listen to the news reports i get confused the quantity of oil being spilled.

I'm surprised no one has caught this! You state that "imperial gallons...are two-tenths less than an American gallon". Remember the formula from school? Two pints equal one quart and four quarts equal a gallon. The Imperial pint is 20 ounces, therefore an Imperial gallon is 160 ounces. The US pint is 16 ounces, therfore the US gallon is 128 ounces. So your Imperial pint glass holds 25% more beer or ale with a "full measure". Cheers, mates!

One small correction, although not specifically relevant to oil, is with respect to an Imperial vs. a U.S. gallon. You stated "(And the latter two are imperial gallons, which are two-tenths less than an American gallon.)" In fact, it's the opposite way around; a U.S. liquid gallon is not quite two-tenths less than an Imperial gallon.

Here is a copy fo the different measurements commonly used for oil depending where in the world you live. The standard barrel of crude oil or other petroleum product (abbreviated bbl) is 42 US gallons (34.9723 imp gal; 158.9873 L). Barrels tend to be used when oil is taken out of the ground and sent to the refinery. Once oil is refined and made into petrol/gasoline and other products it is measured in gallons or litres. Whatever measure is used, the current disaster occurring in the Gulf with BP spill is enormous and hard to even imagine the volume fo crude oil spewing into the ocean. Drilling is high risk and high reward (at times). The opposite of high risk is high damage, not only to the environment but also to BP. Perhaps this is a wake up call for all companies involved with drilling