BP gas boycotts may not achieve goal
Firm owns few stations and fuel crosses brands
With each day that oil fouls the Gulf of Mexico, more drivers are considering a choice at US intersections: 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 to John Kleine, executive director of the BP Amoco Marketers Association, which represents many of the owners and suppliers of the BP and Arco stations.
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.
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,’’ 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 statement.
Jeff Cole, who runs Costco’s enormous gasoline sales operation, did not return 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,’’ 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 could go shopping for a hybrid.