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Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts. 

In Louisiana last weekend, oil flowed under booms, it went around booms, it found miles of marsh where booms were never deployed.

Jeff Dequattro, our oyster project director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, watched it happen, even as he was setting out more booms to help protect a major new Conservancy oyster restoration project along Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Out in the middle Gulf, immense pools of oil are wrapping around the sea of sargassum weed — which was, after the marshes, the Gulf’s most important nursery for fish.

All the donated human hair and animal fur that has been flown around the country to staunch the flow has now been deemed a waste of time and fuel oil.

And the hole in the floor of the Gulf keeps spewing oil at a rate that the oil industry seems fearful of calculating.

A sickening sense of helplessness has set in, even among scientists.

“We get it,” one frustrated reader wrote. “Now what do we do?”

Once the damage in the Gulf is assessed, there will be much the American community will need to do, and can do, to repair some of the damage there.

Meanwhile, most of us console ourselves by blaming the companies, blaming the regulators, blaming the slow response, even as we continue to participate in that great conspiracy — every time we fill up our cars with Gulf Coast gas.

If you want to do something right now, do it with these numbers in mind:

  • 59 gallons: Average volume of motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in Europe.
  • 428 gallons: Motor vehicle gasoline used, per person per year, in the United States.
  • 620%: Percentage by which U.S. gasoline usage for vehicles exceeds that of Europe.
  • 9.989 million barrels: Amount of oil used for gasoline each day in the United States.
  • 1.8 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil saved each day if U.S. gasoline consumption were only 500% greater than consumption in Europe.
  • 1.75 million barrels of oil: Amount of oil produced each day by all offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
So, great: We could eliminate the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil production if we reduced our driving so that we only used 5 times, rather than 6.2 times, as much gasoline for motor vehicle travel as Europeans do.

But we wouldn’t want to set a goal for ourselves that would require real sacrifice, would we? So how painful would it be to reduce our gasoline consumption by 20 percent?

Look at these numbers:

  • 190 miles: Average miles driven, per person per week, in the United States.
  • 5.4 miles: Average number of miles per day we’d have to reduce our driving to eliminate dependency on oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • 38 miles: Average number of miles per week we’d have to reduce our driving.
Some drive more, some less. Watch your odometer to see how many miles you drive, and what your 20 percent cut looks like.

Consider carpooling

But a significant number of Americans could eliminate America’s reliance on Gulf of Mexico oil production simply by carpooling to work with one other person 2 or 3 days per week. Those who have good access to efficient public transportation could make a giant contribution. I can almost eliminate my dependency simply by hopping on the bicycle for a pleasant 10-minute ride (2.5 miles) to my office.

Many of us would claim we can’t possibly reduce gasoline consumption because we have no choice but to drive our cars to work. Fine.

So review these calculations from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey: No matter how you look at it, only 20 to 30 percent of the average American’s car miles are devoted to commuting to work.

The biggest single chunk of travel — nearly one-third of the total, or about 60 miles per week for the average person — was purely for socializing and entertainment (that doesn’t include trips to school and church, family business such as doctors trips, or shopping). The biggest percentage increase in travel over the past several decades has been the result of shopping trips: Our mileage there has almost doubled, and accounts for nearly 15 percent of travel.

Do you care enough about what’s happening in the Gulf to combine shopping trips with the commute to work?

Of course, where you live in relation to your work and your favorite social spots can play a significant role in how much gas you use. Would the collapse of the Gulf’s fishing industry matter enough to you that you’d consider that next time you bought a new house?

Reducing our gas usage doesn’t prevent anyone from drilling for oil anywhere, but it sure reduces the incentives for it. More than 70 percent of the oil used in the U.S. goes to transportation, and U.S. oil consumption is nearly three times higher than any other country, so our driving exerts a whopping influence on world oil prices.

In the absence of higher prices for oil, it’s hard to imagine oil companies would be making tremendously expensive, risky and controversial decisions to drill for oil miles beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s no consolation for the damage already being done to our beautiful and once productive Gulf.

BP and others involved in the Deepwater Horizon project are responsible for the spill. But if we can’t reduce our driving by 5.4 miles a day, I think we need to look at our own responsibility, too.

Figures used in this article were obtained from the United Nations International Energy Agency, Statistics Division; the World Resources Institute; the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook; the U.S. Federal Highway Administration; and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Comparisons of per capita gasoline usage reflect 2005 data, which can be compared across all countries. Per capita usage based on ISIC Divisions 60, 61 and 62.

— Text by Bill FinchCool Green Science Blog

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