Boycott BP gas stations? That’s the wrong target

Oil giant BP, as a devotee of British understatement might say, has something of an image problem. Its environmentally devastating spill in the Gulf of Mexico — and new questions about risky decisions it made in an effort to cut corners and save money — have led to congressional hearings, federal investigations and a 25% drop in the company’s stock price. The crisis has also prompted worldwide derision, demonstrations and fury. All perfectly understandable under the circumstances.

But there’s something not quite cricket about the growing calls for a more extreme form of protest — a boycott of BP gas stations. Public Citizen, the consumer-advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, has an online petition calling for a three-month BP boycott, and a Facebook group has thousands of members who promise to bypass BP stations. There are far better and more effective outlets for public outrage.

Before the gulf spill, BP was considered among the most environmentally responsible oil companies in the world. Granted, that’s not saying much. BP’s campaign to market itself as a protector of endangered species and a promoter of renewable energy has accurately been dubbed “greenwashing.” But it has invested more in renewable power than other oil companies, and it has taken strong steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its operations. We have to wonder where people who are boycotting BP stations are going to fill up — at stations branded by Exxon Mobil, one of the nation’s biggest polluters? Will they turn to Chevron, which is fighting ferociously to deny responsibility for its role in an environmental catastrophe in the Amazon? In the oil business, nobody has clean hands.

There’s also the fact that BP stations are independently owned, so a boycott hurts individual retailers more than London-based BP. And the fact that boycotts of oil companies seldom have an impact on their bottom lines. But the larger point is that human error can lead to disaster on any oil rig, owned by any company, at any time. That’s why expanding offshore drilling, as President Obama and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle propose to do, is such a bad idea.

It’s not surprising that people want to take action to express their despair over the ruin of one of the country’s richest coastal ecosystems, but attacking BP isn’t the answer. Obama has rightly suspended offshore lease sales, but he continues to promote a deeply counterproductive energy policy — on Thursday, during a news conference discussing the administration’s response to the spill, he touted a Senate climate bill that would provide massive financial incentives to states that open their coasts to drilling, thus making a repeat of the spill more likely. Those provisions have to go. It’s in Washington, not London, where protesters should make their voices heard.