The BP oil spill has been on all our minds since April. Much press coverage has focused on the ineptitude of BP’s cleanup efforts, the cozy ties between industry and government, and the environmental and economic impacts of the spill on the Gulf coast.

BP wellhead leakingBut every time I listen to the news while driving in the car, I can’t help but think about the sheer waste of oil and gas.

As of today, about 90 million gallons of oil have leaked from the ruptured wellhead: 8 times what was leaked by the Exxon Valdez. (PBS News has a cool running counter on the amount of oil spilled to date, including how much has been flared.)

Less than half of that has been contained or managed in some way: by skimmer vessels, through messy controlled burns on the surface (creating air quality problems for Gulf residents), and by the cap on the broken pipe leading to the Q4000 rig that flares the oil and gas. Although BP’s website refers to flaring efforts as “recovery,” in fact a only a small part of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon is actually being recovered (saved) for refining and use. According to Max McGahan, a press officer I spoke to at BP today, the Q4000 rig has been flaring about 8,000 barrels (336,000 gallons) per day since its deployment on June 15th . Mr. McGahan would not reveal how much oil has been recovered for refining, although he did say that as of July 10th, the total volume of oil “collected or flared” (not including surface burns) is 749,100 barrels (31.5 million gallons). Do the math: (24 days x 336,000g flared/day = 8 million gallons flared). Subtract that from 31.5, and you see that as of July 10th, only about 23 million gallons had been captured to be refined. In other words, as of July 10th, about 67 million gallons have been lost.

Q4000 flaring BP oil in Gulf
The Q4000 flaring oil in Gulf

I cannot help but measure this loss in terms of Prius-miles. My used blue Prius gets about 42 mpg in the winter, 51 in the summer, and 47 in spring and fall (So let’s say 48 mpg on average). Compare this to the 25 mpg I got in my last car, a 10-year old Ford Taurus wagon. On a 325-mile road trip (to New York City and back), that adds up to about 6 gallons saved. Over the course of a year, if I–like the average American–drive about 12,000 miles, I am now saving about 230 gallons over what I did with my former car. Not a huge amount, but more than a drop in the bucket. In 2009, 23.1 mpg was the CAFÉ standard (corporate average fuel economy) standard for cars and light trucks. Compared to this mediocre rate, I am saving almost 270 gallons per year.

When I bought the Prius, my brother gave me a hard time for paying a premium for a hybrid. We did the math together—at that time gas was $4/gallon—and over the long term I still didn’t break even over paying cash for a cheaper used car in similar condition. But I told him that the economics weren’t the only issue for me; doing the right thing was. I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint as much as possible. I’d already insulated and air-sealed my house, replaced my old leaky windows and doors, and had remodeled a few rooms with as many green building products and green materials as I could. I recycle and compost. We’ve cut way back on meat. I hang the laundry on the line to dry. Buying a Prius was the next big consumer step I could take to reduce my impact on the world. I thought that saving a few hundred gallons per year through my autombile selection was a choice worth making.

If only a million Americans (one third of 1% of the population) bought a Prius or similar hybrid this year, they could save an additional 270 million gallons per year—three times the amount of oil spilled to date by BP in the Gulf. Imagine a world with fewer oil wells that blow out or are abandoned, creating a permanent risk of leakage.

I’d like to see the federal government offer better financial incentives for individuals and companies to buy hybrids (check out these state and federal incentives), and to make a host of other energy efficiency moves. Because when a huge corporation loses control of its operation in an environmentally sensitive area, the problem is absorbed by everyone. It’s in all our best interests to maximize the ways that society as a whole can use less energy, and make more green product choices.