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Jun. 3 2010 - 8:15 am | 7,725 views | 1 recommendation | 31 comments

Five ways to boycott BP without helping Exxon

beyond Petroleum

Image by Rusty Boxcars via Flickr

Every morning I wait for the bus in front of a BP station, watching people drive up and fill their tanks.

Are they not outraged, do they not care, did they not notice the logo?

But is it better if they drive further to fill up at Exxon, which survived the last major oil boycott in the early 1990s to set new profit records in the 21st Century? The effort to boycott BP, growing for a few weeks now, is undermined by the lack of a clean competitor and by the extent to which petroleum is woven into our lives. Hank Kalet makes this point on his Channel Surfing blog:

The problem is that for the boycott to be effective, the message must be clear and I’m just not sure that withholding my gas money from BP while giving to Exxon (Valdez oil spill), Shell (a host of injustices throughout Africa, including the death of the Nigerian activist Ken Wiro-Siwa), Chevron (unsavory activities in the rain forest, Burma and elsewhere), and so on, sends much of a message.

The real boycott would be of gasoline altogether, but that is an impossiblity given how tightly woven into the fabric of our lives the poisonous fuel is (not only do we drive, but everything we buy relies on gas).

Although this makes it difficult to mount an effective boycott, it also means there are more opportunities to act.

Hate BP? Stop driving, I’d like to insist, but I know there’s little hope of that.

Many people are unwilling to give up driving, even those outraged by BP’s disaster. For others, it would be too difficult or dangerous to give up driving. Some live where there is little or no viable public transportation. Others travel where it can be unsafe to stand at a bus stop.

Give up driving, please, but if you can’t give up driving, there are other ways to withhold dollars from BP and its ilk. You’ve heard some of these before, but others might surprise you. Maybe you already practice some, but this might be the time to add one. Do it for BP. Call it your BP boycott:

1. Boycott bottled water. The comedian Lewis Black: “Try to go through this logic with me. Our country had water coming to our homes, and even if we were locked out we could still get it, clean water, and we said, no, fuck you, I don’t want it to be that convenient. I want to drive and drive and drive and look for water, like my ancestors did.” The Pacific Institute estimates the U.S. uses 50 million barrels of oil a year just manufacturing the plastic bottles for bottled water. Then there’s the fuel used transporting them to the store, and the fuel people use driving them home. Hate BP? Drink tap water. Filter it if you have a filter. If you don’t have a filter, you can find specific information on the quality of your municipality’s local drinking water from the EPA. It might be perfectly safe.

2. Avoid plastics and other petrochemical products, including chemical pesticides and fertilizers. BP is a major manufacturer of secondary refinery products like acetic acid, which is used in plastics, paints, adhesives, linings for containers and coatings for paper and textiles. Hate BP? Boycott petrochemicals wherever you find them.

3. Buy bulk foods and put them in reusable bags. I know you’ve heard this before, and by now you own a canvas bag for grocery shopping, but it doesn’t always make the trip to the grocery store, does it? According to Earth First, “America uses an astounding 100 billion plastic bags per year, and it takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce them. When you add in worldwide consumption, we could save 120 million barrels of oil annually by switching to reusable bags.” Jennifer Grayson of The Red, White, and Green advises avoiding packaged foods as well: “Do you really need your pears in a plastic clamshell? Buy produce loose, choose bulk items over individually wrapped ones, and cut down on processed food purchases.” Processed foods have a higher oil footprint, you can bet, because of the energy inherent in processing.

4. Be a locavore. Locally produced food didn’t travel very far to reach you, and if it’s also organic, it wasn’t grown with fertilizers or pesticides made by the oil companies. Need help finding local food? Look for a local chapter of Slow Food USA. Or follow the advice offered to me by True/Slant’s Todd Essig: “Ask a local!”

5. Boycott aluminum cans. Every time you buy a six pack, you’re buying two of the cans from BP. The BP subsidiary Arco Aluminum is responsible for about a third of aluminum can production in the United States, as well as for sheet aluminum used in the building and automobile industries. Of course, this means four cans of every six are made by someone else, and aluminum products are among the most recycled. But if you want to withhold your dollars from BP, you can’t ignore aluminum. Maybe other aluminum-can manufacturers will learn to label their cans “Dolphin Safe.”

A final suggestion: Don’t buy something new just to boycott BP. Some in the green-lifestyle press have advised people to buy aluminum water bottles instead of plastic, unaware BP may have supplied the aluminum. Others urge glass food containers instead of plastic, or petroleum-free cosmetics, etc. The green-lifestyle press often falls prey to the consumerist impulse to buy, buy, buy. But unless it grew in your back yard, every new product arrives with oily footprints. If you use plastic containers now, replacing them with glass will only burn more fossil fuels.

Good readers, no doubt many of you have found other ways to boycott BP. Let’s hear them.


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  1. collapse expand

    The amount of petroleum used in transportation, driving, far outweighs the other uses. The average US family uses about 1100 gallons of gasoline a year for driving. That’s where the effort needs to be made. Trading in an average US car getting 21 mpg for a Prius will cut consumption by better than 50%. Carpooling could cut it by 80%. Each 100 miles travelled by e-bike or bike (I substitute 100 miles of car travel a week) saves 4-5 gallons on average. All these things can be done today.

    • collapse expand

      Before we send everyone to their Toyota dealership to buy a Prius today, which at best will reduce, but not boycott gasoline, should we consider the embodied energy of the Prius? The amount of energy used to mine the raw materials, manufacture the car, transport it to the dealership, etc.? It takes an average of 20 barrels of oil to manufacture the average car, according to Eugene Weekly, but much more to manufacture the Prius, which has both an engine and a motor, and which uses specialized alloys. By one estimate the lifetime energy use of a Prius is higher than that of a Hummer:

      CNW Dust to Dust Reports

      More on the energy costs across the lifetime of a Prius here:

      Wattzon – Prius

      The Prius is probably made with BP’s aluminum. I still say, don’t buy anything new in the name of a boycott.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Jeff, the figures I’ve seen were that the total non-fuel energy (manufacture, disposal, transportation, administration, even enforcement) for a 20-mpg Ford Taurus was 17% of the amount of energy in the fuel. So, assuming that a Prius had even as much as 25% more embedded energy, the 46-mpg Prius leaves about half as much carbon footprint over its lifetime, only 55% that of a Taurus. About the same savings can be achieved by simply doubling the ridership in your car, er, carpooling.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Can you really make that claim that purchasing a Prius will cut consumption by better than 50%. Is this what happens in the real world? Or, is the purchase of a Prius detrimental to changing driving behavior? I have a hard time believing that the Prius has done a whole hell of a lot of good for the environment. The thing that does work: increased gas prices (Of course, I would like to see this increase come via taxes– and I would like to see this tax increase offset by a reduction in some other tax, because yes, I know that it is regressive.)
      We need to stop engaging in magical thinking and do the things that we know can work, and the things we can do NOW.Things like making people pay the true cost of what they consume and emphasizing conservation. I am not saying that I don’t think we should invest in green technology, but I don’t think it is the magic bullet that some would have you believe and, building green infrastructure comes with environmental costs too!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    While living throughout Europe, NYC, and Chicago, I was able to use public transportation at least 90% of the time. It was easy, cheap, and better for me and my environment. Since moving back to GA I have very, very little access to public transportation. Mainly because they (the gov’t.) make it so difficult to get to it. I live 2 miles from the nearest bus stop and 20+ miles from the nearest train. Granted, I live in the burbs of Atlanta, but getting to a train in the burbs was never a problem in NYC, Chicago or Europe. If everyone stopped worrying about the “riff-raff” or “those people” having an easier time getting to “our” suburbs, we could have a wonderful train facility right here in Atlanta. Many attempts have been made to extend our MARTA facilities further into the suburbs, but to no avail. The outcry is outrageous. And the worst part is, that very few people living in the city use MARTA either. It seems easier to hop in our cars and go, go, go. I keep hoping that minds will change, and that people will travel and experience the joys of PT. It works so beautifully in other cities and countries, why can’t it work in the South?

    • collapse expand

      Alisa,
      I live in the midwest and have traveled by our ‘MAT’ (metro area transit) bus system as much as possible, but getting out to the suburbs by bus is impossible as I still have to drive to the nearest pick-up spot in order to take the bus. I long for the transit system in Paris, London and especially DC (Paris and London aren’t particularly clean, but for the most part the DC system still is).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Our cities are not near as compact as European cities so there are some major engineering/cost challenges. But, as you say, the psychological and social challenges are even greater. In my neck-of-the-woods using a bus with a bike rack can fill in the gaps. I can do a 15-mile bike-bus-bike commute in 40 minutes compared to 20 minutes by car, each way. The cost is $35/month for the bike-bus option. The car cost is about $300 plus parking costs, $40/month in our city, but a lot higher in other cities. 13 hours saves you about $300. That’s about $22/hour for mere down time.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Adding to your #1, more than the possibility that your tap water “might be perfectly safe”, your bottled water might be poisoned. The film Tapped does a nice job of looking at poisoning effects of both the leaching of chemicals out of the plastic bottle into your water as well as the unregulated water being used to fill the bottles. Apparently there is 1 part-time position acting as regulator for all bottled water in the US. Some battled water comes from contaminated ground water.

    Another reason to boycott bottled water, the clean ground water used for bottling is essentially stolen by corporations from the public to be sold back to us. Water is the next – or new – oil.

    Another obvious way to boycott BP, and other oil giants, call our government. Put pressure on them to regulate, move to renewables, hold corporations accountable for the commons they steal and destroy. Put the President’s phone number into your cell 212-456-1111; your US Rep and Senators through the Capitol switchboard 202-224-3121; as well as your state and local people.

  4. collapse expand

    Surprised I haven’t seen it here, but eating meat requires vastly more fuel consumption than a vegetarian diet, as grain has to be grown, harvested, and shipped (often using petro-based fertilizers) and then fed to cows whose meat is then shipped around the country.

    You don’t even have to be a vegetarian full-time (I know I feel better physically when I have meat in my diet). Choosing to eat meat only on the weekends can save a whole lot of both money and oil, improve your diet, and take money from the government-subsidized inhumane industrial hellholes we call farms. Buy what meat you do eat from a local small farm, and you might also have the joy of knowing you’re eating a happy cow. And indulge yourself on the weekend, have a roast, or a turkey dinner, or a fatty, juicy steak right off the grill. You’ll be able to afford it with the money you save, and it won’t wreck your waistline or your heart if it’s just a weekly treat. Just don’t replace your meat intake with too much junk-food or meat substitutes (certainly not every day). Wheat glutein and soy aren’t all that good for you, they can be expensive, and if you’re not full-time meatless you really don’t need the extra protein during the week. An egg and cheese omelet (I like adding broccoli and onion) is all you really need for protein in a day, anyhow.

  5. collapse expand

    Don’t mean to be churlish in response to the important insight that this isn’t a BP-specific issue and so many excellent suggestions for how to boycott (and thanks for the mention!!)—I especially like “don’t buy something new”—but I think even the best of all possible boycotts is still a boycott, something to make us boycotters feel better but lacking the power of a sustainable solution. Seems to me the Gulf abuse is more a wake up call than an opportunity to boycott; anything less than a Manhattan Project for sustainable petro-free energy (I’m thinking wind and solar) will be a lost opportunity.

  6. collapse expand

    Thank you. Thank you.
    Your last suggestion is especially appreciated. I am so sick of suggestions to help the environment that involve buying something.
    My head explodes when I read about someone building a new 4000 square foot house that uses all the latest “green” technologies (and perhaps is even LEED certified!)

  7. collapse expand

    The 4 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Refuse is the best. Most people can very easily reduce their carbon footprint by 50%, this very week, if they are motivated to do so. You don’t hear much about a carbon tax these days. But that is still what is needed, some 30 years or more since the concept was first introduced.

  8. collapse expand

    “The real boycott would be of gasoline altogether, but that is an impossiblity”

    Only because we, collectively, could have done something thirty years ago to make gasoline a thing of the past. But we couldn’t be inconvenienced with electric cars or perfecting fuel cells.

    And because of that short-sighted psychology, we lose the gulf and our shoreline. Great job, humans!

  9. collapse expand

    In addition to everything else, send a message to Big Oil by signing up at TRUE Independence day, then don’t buy gas on July 4th, our TRUE independence day!

    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=107303222651400

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    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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