Some kind of boycott

by Brian Clarey

Last week, while crude oil bubbled from a rend in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and BP CEO Tony Heyward took his lumps from Congress — albeit without actually saying anything — business at the Irving Park BP gas station was slow but steady.

A landscaping truck dozing at the front row of pumps took on a massive tankful while its driver waited in the air-conditioned store. As the petrol by Brian flowed, a blonde in an Acura pulled up to the Clarey full-service pump, necessitating the attention of a Editor mechanic called from back in the shop who popped the hood, checked the tires and gassed her up. A beaten Toyota and a new Audi both topped off and then went zipping about their business on this hot, sunny day.

“I think we’ve been lucky,” says the station’s owner, Lee Shuler. “We haven’t noticed anything drastic.”

Public outrage at the oil company has hit a fever pitch. Residents of the Gulf States rage against the incoming tide of oil. President Obama wondered aloud whose ass to kick. And while Texas Congressman Joe Barton apologized to the oil giant — an apology he later apologized for — the Boycott BP page on Facebook registered more than 646,000 adherents.

Boycotting BP may seem like an obvious reaction to the company’s negligence concerning the construction of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded in April, and the mealy way in which BP has responded to the crisis: In the early days of the disaster Louisiana fishermen were encouraged to sign away their right to sue for loss of livelihood. BP also tried to control reporters’ access to the gulf and the massive — and still growing — slick; a series of gaffes by the company’s top execs, all committed in aristocratic English accents, heated the debate further.

So yeah, screw BP, its executives — like Heyward, who got a 41 percent raise last year — and the Jaguars they rode in on. Screw Halliburton, the contractor which provided the concrete that led to the explosion. And screw Transocean, the company that actually owned the rig.

But staying away from the BP pumps may not be the best way to stick it to the man.

For one, BP no longer owns any gas stations in the US after divesting itself of them, and about 10,000 American employees, last year. BP stations are franchises, usually run as small businesses or owned by consortiums. And while it’s true that these stations must kick something upstairs to their corporate overlords, a boycott here on the ground, even if it succeeded in shutting down a few BP stations, would hardly bring the company to its knees, though it would separate a business owner from her source of livelihood.

And then there’s this: Oil is commodified, bought and sold in a global marketplace by gas companies who then add their own additive compounds to the mix. The crude sucked up by the Deepwater Horizon — before it blew up, I mean — did not necessarily go to BP stations.

“Even though it’s BP gas [here],” Shuler says, “it might not have come from a BP well that BP explored and drilled for. It was probably bought on the global market.”

Shuler says he buys his gas through a distributor. “There’s a BP rep in the region,” he says. “Never met the person, probably never will. They allow us to buy the product, they ship it to us, we fly the BP colors and that’s about it.”

He also says that his best-selling product, regular unleaded gasoline, is practically a loss leader.

“We do not make a lot on regular unleaded gas, and then we have to pay the credit-card processing fee on top of that,” he says. “There are days we make little to nothing on regular unleaded.”

At the BP on High Point Road near Sedgefield, trade in gasoline, cigarettes and cold drinks is similarly brisk. Manager Coral Wheless has taped a list of the corporations “talking points” to a display near the register, enumerating the money spent, workers mobilized, barrels of oil-water mix recaptured. When talking about it, Wheeler is constantly interrupted by the flow of customers.

“If we leave this to the government they’ll never get it done,” she says. “We have the money, we have the equipment. We can do it.”

Both Wheless and Shuler say they haven’t been hit too hard by the boycott, but Shuler says if it catches on it could be even more disastrous.

“It’s a shame we have to be in this position,” Shuler says. “[BP] need[s] money to clean up the spill and pay the claims. If they’re pushed too hard there they go into bankruptcy and shut down. And like [the] Exxon [Valdez], it could get tied up in the courts for years.”

And while both maintain that BP is a fine company with which to do business, the explosion and leak is still something of an embarrassment.

“This being a multi-billion-dollar company,” Shuler says, “you’d think they would have had a plan.”