Drive right on by the BP station and pull up to the pumps from Exxon, the company responsible for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and, more recently, one of the biggest corporate funders of the movement to tar the science of climate change. Exxon also managed to reduce the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by an Anchorage jury for the Valdez disaster to $507.5 million; the Valdez fishermen and other victims have still not been made whole. (Fun fact: to protect itself in case the original judgment was affirmed, Exxon got a line of credit from JP Morgan, which the bank then parlayed into the first credit default swap, as recounted in the 2009 book Fool’s Gold by Gillian Tett. These are the exotic financial instruments that helped trigger the Great Recession of 2008–09.)
Or roll into the Texaco or Chevron station (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001). Texaco is being sued by people in Ecuador for contaminating their groundwater, causing hundreds of residents to develop fatal cancers and causing other environmental damage near the Lago Agrio oilfield, where Texaco dumped oil-production waste (18.5 billion gallons into open, unlined pits) for almost 20 years. (For those of you moved by First Amendment issues, Chevron has also gone to court to force filmmaker Joe Berlinger to turn over more than 600 hours of outtake footage he shot for his documentary on the case, titled Crude.) Chevron counters that dumping sludge was standard operating procedure at the time.
Or roll up to the Citgo pumps. Citgo is a wholly owned subsidiary of the state oil company of Venezuela, which is ruled by the always-entertaining (except to political opponents he has silenced) Hugo Chávez. A 2009 fire at Citgo’s refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, sent toxic fumes into nearby neighborhoods for two days.
Uncomfortable giving your money to a petrodictator? There’s a Shell station up ahead. Too bad Shell has been accused of human-rights violations in Nigeria, through its collaboration with the country’s former military rulers who executed activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others in 1995, committed crimes against humanity, and tortured opponents. (Shell settled the case for $15.5 million last year.) Shell has also been accused of despoiling the Niger Delta through its oil operations there: a ruptured oil pipeline that killed 100 people in 2008; polluted drinking wells; fields and farmland poisoned by leaked oil.
In other words, pick which malefactor or criminal—environmental or human—you’d like to support when you gas up. And the list above doesn’t even include the fact that what the oil companies sell is one of the major contributors to catastrophic climate change. So unless your boycott of BP extends to all oil companies—oh, and throw in coal companies and natural-gas utilities—you get points for symbolism and self-righteousness but not much else.
It’s understandable that consumers are furious and frustrated by the gulf catastrophe and want to punish those responsible. Protesters have shown up at BP stations in Europe and the United States, and Facebook’s Boycott BP group has 431,000 fans as of this morning. Demonstrators wield banners proclaiming, “We won’t pay for BP’s mess. Take it from your bonus chest.” But to find the ultimate culprits, look in the mirror.
BP and the 32 other operators of deepwater wells in the gulf are there not because they find it technologically interesting to see how deep they can drill, or because their roustabouts like the view from the rigs. They’re drilling because of America’s—and the world’s—insatiable lust for oil. The U.S. consumes 800 million gallons of petroleum per week, according to the Energy Information Agency. The only way to make this the last oil spill in the gulf is to make oil obsolete. Shall we all hop on our bicycles, charge our plug-in hybrids with wind-generated electricity, swap out the heating oil or natural gas warming our homes for geothermal wells and passive solar?
Didn’t think so.
Just as buying green products is better for our eco-esteem than it is an effective way to save the planet, so consumer boycotts of the latest oil company to run afoul of public opinion are emotionally satisfying but ultimately futile. To be sure, there have been some great, and effective, consumer boycotts in the past, and you don’t even have to go back to the American colonists’ refusal to buy British goods as a protest against taxation without representation to find examples. The 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott ignited the modern civil-rights movement. The 1965–70 consumer boycott of California grapes to show solidarity with Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers brought the growers to their knees, forcing them to recognize Chavez’s union and sign a contract with it guaranteeing workers’ rights. The consumer boycott of canned tuna in the 1980s led the industry to adopt dolphin-safe fishing.
For a boycott to achieve its aims, there has to be a clear issue. “Don’t kill dolphins when you catch what I need for my tuna sandwich” is specific and clear; “don’t despoil the environment when you get what I need to drive” isn’t. (See Ecuador and Nigeria examples above.) A boycott must also give consumers alternatives; you can eat strawberries instead of grapes, but trading in your gasoline-powered car for a Tesla or Volt or other electric isn’t nearly so simple. And a boycott must be organized so that violations are visible. Co-workers could see if you brought grapes for lunch, and anyone in Montgomery could see if you were riding the bus. Unless someone figures out how to make gasoline bought from BP produce exhaust that forms a big “BP” when it spews out your tailpipe, no one knows where you gassed up.
All of the above likely explains why BP station owners—for it is they, not the corporation, who own stations—say the boycott has had no noticeable effect.
It’s out of fashion to point out that the solution to the problem of oil harming the environment has to come from the government. Yes, the Minerals Management Service did not exactly cover itself with glory in requiring oil companies to have workable plans in case of an accident in the gulf. The culture of corruption at the MMS—letting oil companies write their own environmental-impact statements, accepting expensive gifts, sleeping with company officials—didn’t help. But just because government did not prevent the Deepwater Horizon disaster does not mean we can give up on government policies to avert future ones. Only by weaning ourselves off oil and other fossil fuels do we have a prayer of preventing future oil spills and all the other environmental calamities of petroleum production and use.
President Obama has seized on that argument to call for Senate passage of the energy and climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. Like the climate bill passed by the House last year, this version would put a price on the greenhouse-gas pollution from oil and other fossil fuels, which would more accurately reflect their true costs and spur people to adopt alternatives. The bills also provide support for developing cleaner alternatives, including nuclear. In an ironic sop to Republicans more concerned about the country’s dependence on foreign oil than about climate change, the Senate bill still calls for more offshore oil-and-gas drilling. Which shows just how hard it is to wean ourselves off, let alone boycott, the stuff that powers society.