I dug up some numbers on other oil spills to put the BP oil spill into perspective. Mind you, I'm not trying to find a way to make it okay to spill millions of gallons of crude into the ocean, I'm just collecting data!
Of course, everyone remembers the Exxon Valdez, which was amounted to 11.4 Million gallons. But there were four other spills since then that were bigger:
Man, that late 80's to early 90's changeover was rough!
In addition, oil finds its way into the water from sources other than industrial accidents:
Also, for the Gulf of Mexico in particular, 43 Million gallons naturally seep into the water annually (Source).
The estimates of what volume of oil is spilling from the BP hole vary wildly, but based on what I've read, it's probably around 1 Million gallons per day. It could be double that, but no one really knows at this point.
So at 60 days and counting, the BP spill is probably larger than the Gulf of Mexico's natural seepage, worldwide natural seepage, and most other recent spills. But it probably won't touch Saddam Hussein's little hissy fit it threw when we invaded in the '90's, and it wont touch the amount of oil that each year finds itself into the ocean from the hillbilly down the street who changes the oil on his 86 Camero and flushes it down the toilet. It definitely won't surpass what gets into the ocean from every other source possible.
As for the Exxon Valdez, I think it's revealing that everyone remembers this spill when there have been many others bigger, and even since that spill in '89. Captain Hazelwood was also drunk, and that makes a good news story, but I think it has more to do with the fact that if a US company does it, or it happens in US territory, it's a bigger deal.
Oh yeah, one more fact: Roark bought stock in BP after the spill at $37. I guess I'm an optimist. We'll see how it plays out. It's fallen and holding at $31 so far. If it goes to 20 or 25 I'll probably double down. There's no way even the harshest penalties, worst case clean-up cost, and loss public image will account for their loss of $75M of market value.
UPDATED on 6/16: Some spelling, phrasing, clarification on the Valdez, and additional comments about BP stock.