A boycott of BP gas stations has been in the works ever since the BP oil spill, when the petroleum giant's Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in April of 2010, creating the biggest oil spill America has ever seen.
But what good will it do to boycott BP? Will the embattled company change its blundering ways? Will other oil companies clean up their act in response?
The BP Oil Spill: Who's Responsible?
The Facebook page devoted to boycotting BP has nearly a million fans (as of this article's publication date), and calls have gone out internationally for the company -- and the entire industry -- to make amends for the environmental and social damage they've wreaked worldwide.
As someone who spent years working as an environmental compliance manager in the retail gas station division of a major oil company, I have a few thoughts on a boycott of BP. First, many people have rightly pointed out that BP gas stations are not company-owned, but are franchised to small business owners. Boycotting BP, they say, will hurt these business owners more than it will hurt the oil company.
While it's true that BP gas stations are not company-owned, these franchisees are under contract to buy BP gas from BP tanker trucks that usually fuel up at BP refineries. So a boycott of BP stations, which will hurt franchisees, will also hurt the company. Call it the "trickle-up" theory of boycotting: the economic pain of a serious, long-term boycott will eventually bubble right up the ladder to the CEO's office.
Who's Better Than BP?
That may seem insensitive to the needs of local businesses. It is. But a boycott that doesn't hurt anyone economically isn't really a boycott -- it's an endorsement, and a rather lazy one at that. Making a stand often involves pain. And if it hurts those local business people hard enough, maybe they'll open an Exxon station instead.
Which leads to my next point -- which oil company is better than BP? Admittedly, it's a toss-up. The oil industry is a dangerous, messy, scandal-ridden business, and the entire process of extracting, refining and shipping oil is a hornet's nest of petro-dictators, environmental disasters, human rights violations, political scandals, civil insurrection, price gouging, bloody oil wars ... name any sin, and it's probably been committed in the name of bringing you gasoline.
So should you fill up at the station that brought you the Exxon Valdez disaster? Or drive across the street to the company that propped up a murderous, dictatorial regime in Myanmar? It's a grim choice, but this is where timing counts. Boycotting BP now, and keeping that boycott in place over the next year or so, will definitely send a message to the company -- and just as importantly, to its shareholders -- that their behavior is unacceptable, and it will cost them.
So stop buying BP gasoline, and Castrol motor oil, and Arco gasoline; BP owns all those brands. It also owns AM/PM convenience stores, Aral motor oils, and Wild Bean coffee shops. Instead, give your money to another oil company -- one that hasn't wiped out a huge ecosystem. In recent years. Here in America, at least.
The BP Oil Spill: Shooting the Messenger
And where is that boycott going to get you? It will, over time, send a message to all oil companies to straighten up and fly right -- and over time, things will slowly improve. It's the same message they got after the Exxon Valdez disaster, and after Unocal human rights violations, and after Shell proposed dumping an oil platform at the bottom of the Atlantic, and ...
Wait a minute. If this keeps happening, are they really getting the message? My third and final point is, maybe the problem isn't the message -- it's the messenger. Filling up my car at Shell instead of BP sends a message, alright: "I spend money on gas." Period. It's the same message I send when I fill up the oil tank that powers my hot water and heats my house all winter.
While a boycott of BP will help what one writer calls our "eco-esteem," maybe what we should be boycotting is ourselves, and our oil-addicted life. Perhaps we should boycott our gas-guzzling cars, and our need to keep the air conditioning blasting all summer, and the convenience of a thermostat that's set at 80 degrees all winter, and our mindless, obsessive, consumer-driven lifestyles.
Now that's a boycott we should all support.