Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys; and from where should we buy our gas?

What’s a socially- and environmentally-conscious consumer supposed to do?

I haven’t bought gas at an Exxon station since 1989 following the disastrous oil spill of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.

It was a matter of principle. Exxon’s response to the oil spill was slow, defensive and insensitive. All these years, I have not wanted to spend my money on a company like Exxon.

On the other hand, I truly believed BP was worthy of my money.

I really got to see what BP was made of back in 2000 when I was working on a column about our upcoming smog season.

At the time, the state of Georgia had passed requirements for gasoline companies to sell cleaner low-sulfur fuel by May 1, 2003 in metro Atlanta in time to meet federal clean-fuel standards that were being phased in between 2004 and 2006.

Every gasoline company said there was no way they would be able to meet the demand for low-sulfur fuel by 2003. All but one — BP Amoco.

Instead of fighting the new standards, BP Amoco had started selling low-sulfur gas in 1999 and was able to sell the cleaner premium fuel at its 400 stations in the 25-county metro area for the smog season of 2000.

At the time, BP officials said it was not a matter of meeting state or federal requirements, it was a matter of the company’s corporate philosophy to be an environmental leader.

Over the years, I followed BP’s environmental policies from afar. Sir John Browne (who later became Lord John Browne), who was CEO of the company until 2007, declared that BP was not an oil company but an energy company. In fact, its advertising line became “BP – Beyond Petroleum.”

The company joined the Business Environmental Leadership Council; it supported the Kyoto accord; and Bowne echoed precautions about global warming as far back as 1997; and in 1998, Browne committed to reducing the company’s CO2 emissions by 10 percent by 2010.

That wasn’t all. BP began transforming its gas stations — installing solar panels to reduce its use of fossil fuels. It even redesigned its logo to look like a sun with green, yellow and white rays.

Former Morehouse College President Walter Massey served on BP’s board, and chaired the company’s Ethics and Environment Assurance Committee before retiring from the board in 2008. He and I had had several conversations about how BP was different from other petroleum companies.

And in BP’s mission statement, one of its values is to carry on its “business in an environmentally responsible manner, and develop cleaner energy and renewable energy sources.” The mission went on to say that BP was “committed to the responsible treatment of the planet’s resources and to the development of sources of lower-carbon energy.”

Because of those tangible and intangible environmental policies, I always felt good about buying gas from BP stations. I even didn’t mind spending a few extra pennies per gallon when there would be a competing gas stations offering a cheaper price.

And then came the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 (ironically Hitler’s birthday).

As much as I would like to give BP the benefit of the doubt, it has been distressing to see how unprepared the company and its partners were to deal with such a catastrophe.

Also, from my perspective, it seemed as though BP kept minimizing the problem — underestimating how many barrels of oil were spilling every day in the gulf — floating to Louisiana’s shores.

And BP’s efforts to try to stop the leak could be called a comedy of errors if the situation wasn’t so tragic.

There’s such a feeling of helplessness when one witnesses disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti; or man-made catastrophes like the oil spill in the gulf on the oil spill in Alaska.

So when I decide where or where not to spend my money, it makes me feel as though I’m doing something — as small as it might be.

But now I’m at a loss. I certainly don’t plan to start buying gas from Exxon, but I will think twice before I buy gas from BP.

What is a socially- and environmentally-conscious consumer supposed to do?

The only answer I can think of is to try to reduce the amount of gas I use, thereby spending as little money as possible contributing to the profits and sins of oil companies.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

11 replies
  1. professional skeptic says:

    It took me a few years to stop buying Exxon gas. It was only after I saw how Exxon brazenly and unapologetically started filing appeal after appeal in the effort to delay and reduce payment of punitive damages that I gave up on Exxon. I haven’t bought a drop of gas from an Exxon station since the mid ’90s.

    BP is trying my patience. Its CEO is saying the right things (apologizing, taking responsibility for the cleanup costs). But if this spill continues until August – the estimated time needed to drill secondary shafts down to the leaking reservioir – then BP will need to change its course and put its money where its mouth is regarding its claim to be an “energy company” and not just an oil company.

    I want to see BP dramatically ramp up its funding of solar, wind and other alternative energy sources, not just oil. And, as soon as BP starts to play the same kind of appeals game that Exxon did, in the effort to weasel out of paying full damages and restitution, I’ll stop buying gas there, too.

    By the way, when my car was in the shop for a week in April, I started taking the bus from my neighborhood to the closest MARTA station, rather than parking at the closest MARTA rail parking lot. It really wasn’t that bad, plus I got a little exercise walking to and from the bus stop. I still do this at least a couple times per week, as long as the weather is nice.Report

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  2. Lisa Frank says:

    Maria: I appreciate your highlighting BP’s environmental attributes. When I worked in the environment division at Turner Broadcasting, B Pyle and I had several meetings with a very smart guy from BP who was among the first environmental VPs of a global corporation reporting directly to CEO Browne. They have indeed been environmental leaders and I want to believe they are still doing their best in the face of an unprecedented, yet inevitable disaster.

    Buying less gas, driving less is a good option, though miniscule. You’re right in line with M Lukovich’s cartoon today.Report

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  3. radix023 says:

    I was disillusioned about BP far earlier than that. The Economist had a picture of a BP tanker truck transferring its payload to an unmarked truck on the Serbian border during the Bosnian conflict. Nothing like a little war profiteering to jack profits (there was an embargo on at the time).

    I’m also surprised that Citgo, the gas from Venezuela where Communist Dictatorship is alive and well didn’t get a mention.Report

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  4. Keith says:

    I have no problem buying from BP or Exxon. If you study the worldwide oil industry, you’ll realize there is no clear line where the oil that BP extracts ends up as BP brand gas. BP’s oil may get “swapped” for oil from another firm and that tank of Texaco gasloline may be made from BP oil and that tank of BP gas may have come from Shell, etc. In other words, it some ways all the oil worldwide kinda gets thrown in a communal market and you can’t really track it. The oil industry has a great record. After decades of pumping oil from the Gulf of Mexico how many major spills have we had… hmmm…. this is the only one I remember. While it’s unfortunate, there is no reason for the BP incident to slow us down in our efforts to expand domestic oil production.Report

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  5. Yr1215 says:

    No easy answers Maria, other than the one you mentioned. The best thing you can do for the environment is purchase the most fuel efficient car you can afford when you need a new car. Cars only last 10 years or so. If everyone did this, we would need a fraction of the oil we currently consume.

    You can also check out the Nissan Leaf. All electric. And while batteries have components and elements that must be mined, at least they can be recycled and reused.Report

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  6. Yr1215 says:

    I might add, on balance BP is generally trying to do the right thing with respect to transitioning away from oil. They made a series of very big mistakes. As bad as the oil spill is, I’m not sure they belong in the same league as Exxon.

    In general, the best thing is to just reduce consumption, then it matters a lot less where or who it comes from.Report

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  7. Lonnie Fogel says:

    Here in the Bay Area, many have converted their autos to run on biodiesel. Not perfect, but it’s cleaner and is mostly recycled, refined vegetable oil. The exhaust may smell a bit like french fries.Report

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  8. BPJ says:

    I have read in several reliable sources that BP gas is at more than just BP stations, and that the stations are typically owned by local franchisees whose voice in setting exploration policy is slight.

    The better idea is to reduce oil consumption overall, and there are several reasons to do this. Some reasons are “environmental”, but there are also national security concerns at work: aren’t we tired of stuffing dollar bills into the pockets of President Ahmadinejad and the rest of the loathsome regime in Iran? Yet until we drastically reduce oil consumption, that is what we are doing. Just as it’s hard to seperate “BP oil” from the rest of it, it really doesn’t work to say “we’re not buying Iranian oil, so we’re not contributing to propping up that regime” (not to mention several other awful regimes). Oil is a fungible commodity; if we don’t buy Iran’s oil, China, India, and others will. The only way to bring low the petrocrats is to substantially reduce WORLDWIDE oil consumption.

    My first modest contribution to that effort was to buy a 2004 Prius, effectively cutting my gas consumption in half. (Don’t worry – it’s one of the ones without the pedal problem.) The second step was choosing to live and work near MARTA stations, and riding MARTA frequently. Each of us can make a difference.Report

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  9. Yr1215 says:

    From the ny times:

    Punishing BP Is Harder Than Boycotting Stations Chris Pizzello/Associated PressProtesters at an Arco gas station in Los Angeles, Tuesday. Arco is owned by BP. 1 more image By RON LIEBERPublished: June 12, 2010 With each day that oil fouls the Gulf of Mexico, more drivers are weighing a choice at intersections across the United States: if BP is on the left and some other station is on the right, is filling up at BP an endorsement of the company’s conduct?Advocacy organizations like Public Citizen urge consumers to stay away from BP stations. About 550,000 Facebook users have clicked the “Like” button on the Boycott BP page. And angry people have picketed at BP stations.This doesn’t send a particularly powerful message to BP, though. After all, the company owns only a handful of the 11,000 stations that bear its brand and is trying to sell the few still on its books. So those who wish to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the company are instead putting much of the hurt on the family businesses who actually own the stations.Just how little does BP gain from its gas stations, besides whatever ancillary marketing benefit it gains from the signs? The gas in its pumps may not be extracted, refined or stored by the company and may just get a spritz of BP additives right before it ends up at the service station. All of this puts a mere handful of coins in the company’s pocket per fill-up.And the gas that people buy when they fill up elsewhere? Fuel from independent gas stations, grocery chains and big-box wholesale clubs sometimes comes directly from refineries or wholesalers that BP owns outright.Greenpeace has chosen not to call for a boycott. Instead, its representatives pose a different challenge: people who really want to punish BP ought to try getting Beyond Petroleum themselves.BP doesn’t have much use for the service station business anymore. In 2007, it announced plans to sell the last 700 stations that it hadn’t already sold to franchisees. The company chose to focus on finding and collecting oil.Once companies make a discovery, it comes out of the ground and ends up at a refinery. There, it can get mixed with oil that a variety of companies have poured into the tanks. Then, the gasoline makes at least one stop at what is essentially a wholesale warehouse. BP owns some of these tank farms, but so do other companies.Eventually, a truck pulls up to collect and deliver the gasoline to stations. It is often only then that the ingredients that make it BP fuel get added. “It doesn’t become a brand of gasoline until it gets those additives,” said Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the Petroleum Marketers Association of America. “What BP gets from this is probably a rounding error in terms of overall revenues or profits,” said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for NACS, an association of convenience stores and gasoline retailers. Meanwhile, revenue for some BP station owners has declined as much as 20 percent since the oil spill, according John Kleine, executive director of the BP Amoco Marketers Association, which represents many of the owners and suppliers of the BP and Arco stations.And does Public Citizen truly believe that the spill’s environmental damage and the resulting economic pain justify its attempts to starve service station owners of revenue? “We’re clearly not helping them, but I don’t think we’re hurting them,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the organization’s energy project, who added that its boycott will last for only three months. “I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but we felt that there would be minimal collateral damage by initiating a national boycott.”For people who can’t stomach the idea of even a penny of their money going to BP, driving by the station in search of a more palatable option creates its own problems. Kert Davies, the research director for Greenpeace in the United States, said he was pondering this recently as he was driving home (yes, he does drive). “There was a Chevron, a Shell station, Exxon and BP,” he said. “I can think of really good reasons to boycott every one of those.”Plenty of people head to a no-name station, a grocer or warehouse club. But it’s entirely possible that those drivers end up with a tank full of the very fuel that they were trying to avoid. “Pick any one of those retailers, and you stand a good chance of filling your car up with fuel extracted by BP,” Mr. Lenard said.Alternatively, BP may have stored the gasoline and supplied it to whomever delivered it to a grocer or warehouse store. David Nicholas, a BP spokesman, said that he could not identify BP’s biggest wholesale fuel customers, but that he probably wouldn’t disclose them even if he could. “I think we would treat that as a commercial agreement that we would not discuss,” he said.Meghan Glynn, a spokeswoman for the grocery chain Kroger, which sells a lot of gasoline, said the identity of its partners was proprietary. “We source fuel as a commodity from a variety of suppliers,” she said in a written statement. And if one of them happened to be BP, how would the company feel about protestors picketing its fuel pumps? “We respect the right of individuals to advocate for their point of view, but we leave purchasing decisions up to the individual consumer,” she wrote.Jeff Cole, who runs Costco’s enormous gasoline sales operation, did not return several calls for comment about whether it purchases fuel from BP. Sam’s Club, meanwhile, offers gas at 464 locations, some of which comes from BP terminals. BJ’s Wholesale Club does not buy gasoline directly from BP, but a spokeswoman, Kelly McFalls, said that didn’t mean it wasn’t peddling BP’s fuel. “There is not a single retailer out there that can guarantee that the gas it’s offering isn’t mixed with some BP gas,” she said. “That’s just the way the fuel business works.”These uncomfortable truths are a big part of why Greenpeace has not called for a boycott. Still, it hopes to use the spill as a rallying cry. “We would like people to think about this as something bigger than BP,” Mr. Davies said. “All of these companies have us literally over a barrel. They are the dealer, and we are the addict.”So perhaps the best way for people to express outrage and inflict pain on oil companies is to use less fuel, thereby lowering overall demand. This is much harder than flinging brown paint at a BP sign, as many people have done. It may mean walking more or wearing sweaters indoors in the winter with the thermostat set at 64 degrees.People who still need a short-term hit of righteousness may continue to avoid filling up at BP stations. But it would be nice if they picked up a week’s worth of milk from a BP mini-mart on the way home at night. That way, the station owners don’t suffer as much.Then, the next morning, all of those drivers ought to go shopping for a hybrid.Report

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  10. Yr1215 says:

    Another relevany ny times commentary from tom friedman.

    By THOMAS L. FRIEDMANPublished: June 13, 2010 My friend, Mark Mykleby, who works in the Pentagon, shared with me this personal letter to the editor he got published last week in his hometown paper, The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill – and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where.”I’d like to join in on the blame game that has come to define our national approach to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This isn’t BP’s or Transocean’s fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word. It’s what we do as individuals that count. For those on the left, government regulation will not solve this problem. Government’s role should be to create an environment of opportunity that taps into the innovation and entrepreneurialism that define us as Americans. For those on the right, if you want less government and taxes, then decide what you’ll give up and what you’ll contribute. Here’s the bottom line: If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something. So again, the oil spill is my fault. I’m sorry. I haven’t done my part. Now I have to convince my wife to give up her S.U.V. Mark Mykleby.”I think Mykleby’s letter gets at something very important: We cannot fix what ails America unless we look honestly at our own roles in creating our own problems. We – both parties – created an awful set of incentives that encouraged our best students to go to Wall Street to create crazy financial instruments instead of to Silicon Valley to create new products that improve people’s lives. We – both parties – created massive tax incentives and cheap money to make home mortgages available to people who really didn’t have the means to sustain them. And we – both parties – sent BP out in the gulf to get us as much oil as possible at the cheapest price. (Of course, we expected them to take care, but when you’re drilling for oil beneath 5,000 feet of water, stuff happens.)As Pogo would say, we have met the enemy and he is usReport

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