I had to make the decision the other day. The fuel gauge was on empty and the closest gas station boasted the BP logo. My co-driver advocated against patronizing the store, but our choices were limited. I pulled up to the pump and pulled the trigger, but I didn't feel good about it. It got me thinking, though. Did it really matter whether I filled up at the station with the green and yellow sunflower on the sign? What difference could I, with my limited purchasing power, really make against one of the world's largest corporations? I decided to ask around, gather the facts, and try to make the best-informed decision possible.

Greens Against a Boycott
I started with one of the most earth-conscious, enviro-friendly organizations I could think of: The Sierra Club. Surely the good folks there would have the information I needed to help me make my decision.

I spoke with David Willett to get the Sierra Club's position. "We are neither supporting a boycott nor are we calling on our members to boycott BP," Willett said. "In general, we don't view boycotts as the most effective tactic to make a point or change a business practice."

Rather than call for a boycott, the Sierra Club is conducting consumer-education events at gas stations around the country. "We hand out literature about our country's dependence on oil and our need to move beyond it as our primary energy source," he said. "We use gas stations because this is where the American public is most aware of its energy use." Such situations are ideal, said Willett, to talk to consumers about alternative fuels and options like public transportation.

"At this point, our efforts to wean the United States off petroleum are much greater than boycotting one oil company. This is a much bigger issue. We want to focus on this nation's oil dependence and that's not something that BP alone is responsible for," he said.

So if the Sierra Club didn't think consumers should boycott BP, who was I to think I knew better? Who might be able to give me the pro-boycott side of the story? Who would educate me on the power of consumers when they band together?

Ralph Nader, of course.

Public Citizen: Pro-consumer, Pro-BP Boycott

I got the story on why Public Citizen, Nader's organization, was supporting a boycott from its president, Robert Weissman. "Public Citizen is calling for a boycott of BP to provide the public with a way to send a message to the company that its irresponsibility and the destruction it has caused are reprehensible," Weissman stated. "A boycott is a way for people to let BP know its behavior is unacceptable."

But BP as a corporation owns less than 100 of the 11,000 BP stations in this country; independent franchise owners run the rest. Isn't the boycott going to hurt them more than it hurts a multinational corporation with a global value estimated at $235 billion? Some BP-branded gas stations have reported sales declines of 10 percent to 40 percent from Florida to Illinois since the April 20 rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It is true that the boycott is having an impact on the independent franchise owners, but it is also impacting BP in important ways," said Weissman. "Any boycott is necessarily going to hurt some innocent parties," he continued. "Any organization calling for a boycott and any person engaging in a boycott must take that into account. That can't be a reason, however, for consumers to forfeit their power for collective action."

Rhetoric about hurting innocent parties in pursuit of an agenda sounded vaguely reminiscent of generals rationalizing civilian casualties as acceptable collateral damage in time of war. I wondered how one of those "innocent parties" felt, so I called one for their perspective.

A BP Station Owner's Side of the Boycott Story
Jay Ricker and Family
Jay Ricker founded Ricker Oil Company out of his home in 1979 and he and his wife were its first employees. Based in Anderson, Ind., today his company employs more than 150 people, and owns 50 stations and supplies another 55 throughout Indiana. Roughly three-quarters of that total are BP-branded stores. Ricker's stations were originally Amoco branded -- he became a BP franchisee when BP acquired Amoco in 2000.

"I've been in the oil business since I got out of college," Ricker said. "And other than the oil embargo in 1973, which was a shortage, not a boycott, I've never seen anything as earth-shaking as this issue."

His company is definitely feeling the effects of the boycott. "So far, we are down 10 percent for the year, which is a good-size figure for us," he related. "I'm upset and frustrated at what has happened in the Gulf, too, but boycotting my stores is not punishing the responsible party."

The main problem with the boycott, as Ricker sees it, is that the public does not understand how the oil business works. Since it's a commodity-driven business, it's almost impossible to know where a station is getting its gasoline. "BP sells huge amounts of unbranded gas to stations such as Meijer, Costco and Kroger," Ricker explained. "Consumers might think they're honoring the boycott by patronizing those stations while at the same time they're filling up with BP gas."

The other part of the gas-station business model is the razor-thin profit margins at which gas is sold. "I make the same slim profit regardless of what a gallon of gas costs. And when gas was four dollars a gallon, I actually lost money when customers used a credit card because of the credit card fees I pay," Ricker explained. "I make money on selling things like pizza, candy bars and fountain drinks. But if customers aren't buying gas at my stores, then I don't have the opportunity to sell them those items."

If business is down for Ricker, it's not just his company that feels the pinch. "We support a number of organizations in the communities where we do business," he said. "Ricker's sponsors 20 to 30 softball teams in the summer. We donate to the Salvation Army and give both our time and money to Habitat for Humanity. We support after-prom events at our local high schools and help raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But if I have no business, then I have no money to support these causes."

BP Offers Financial Aid to Owners

New developments might indicate that the boycott is some effect on the BP corporation. It recently announced it would make financial resources available to owners, operators, and suppliers of its gas stations in the United States in the form of cash, reductions in credit card fees, and assistance with more national advertising. Estimates of the total financial package are between $50 million to $70 million.

As one of those franchisees receiving this financial assistance, Ricker welcomes the support. "I think this is a good first step, but more needs to be done," he said. "A reduction in credit card fees, though, doesn't help me if no one is shopping at my stores."

To Boycott or Not?

Jay Ricker and Family So where did all my research lead me? The balanced, educational approach advocated by the Sierra Club made the most sense to me. While it is certainly correct to blame BP for the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history, it reminds me of the old saying about when pointing a finger, three point back at you. That's because as long as this nation continues to be addicted to oil, there is no use in blaming the dealer. The dealer is merely supplying what we demand.

A better solution is to do our best at reducing our consumption of fossil fuels wherever possible -- simple stuff such as checking tire pressure (some may sneer, but real car guys know this is a valid tip), making sure our vehicles are running efficiently, limiting unnecessary trips, and taking public transportation when possible. These are things we should have been doing for decades now. We as a nation need to take some accountability for our actions and behave like responsible grownups.

As for the next time I need to fuel up? I won't have any qualms about stopping at a BP. I might just go inside and buy a fountain drink and a candy bar, too.

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