The onset of cold weather in much of the
US traditionally shifts concerns among energy buyers from gasoline prices to
home heating bills. But this year, some of that focus remains on gasoline
more specifically, its origins.
Over the past
few months, 80 percent of the e-mail messages received by the National Energy
Information Center (NEIC) in Washington carried roughly the same subject line:
"Oil and terrorism," according to information specialist Susanne Johnson.
Their main query: Where does the gas I buy come
Curiosity about the origin of gasoline sold in
the US has risen since talk of military action in Iraq heated up, says Ms.
Johnson. "We found that customers were just looking for information on Persian
Gulf importers," she says.
The spike in interest may
be rooted in a grass-roots effort on the part of activists primarily
through websites and e-mail campaigns urging consumers to boycott
gasoline vendors who import large amounts of oil from the Middle East. These
activists argue that such purchases support oppressive regimes, some of which
may be sponsoring terrorism.
But the information
offered by the activists generally is rife with inaccuracies, say oil industry
experts. Moreover, their campaigns oversimplify the issue.
"Because of the way the gasoline trade works,
boycotting Middle East oil is not only off base, it's physically impossible,"
says Michael Economides, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston.
Boycott Watch, a Cleveland organization, began this
summer researching the origin of gasoline sold in the US. The group acted after
receiving several e-mails that encouraged consumers to tape lists of "approved"
gasoline retailers to their cars' dashboards.
such lists, based in large part on data offered by the NEIC (www.eia.doe.gov),
are inadequate guides, says Boycott Watch researcher Fred Taub.
The NEIC designates Shell, for example, as having
imported the second-smallest amount of Middle East oil during 2001. Yet the
information excludes important corporate ties.
is a major partner of Motiva Enterprises, the largest Middle East oil importer.
Shell has also joined with Saudi Arabia in building US refineries.
NEIC data also show that Conoco imported all of its
oil from Canada and Latin America. Unknown to many boycotters, however, is the
fact that the company recently merged with Phillips Petroleum, which imports a
large percentage of its oil from Saudi Arabia.
the beginning of oil exploration overseas, companies have shared rights to
drill oil fields. Many jointly operate refineries and pipelines.
Oil companies not only have corporate ties with each
other, they also mix their gasoline.
as Exxon, which operates many of its own refineries, will often refine
petroleum into gasoline that was drilled by another company in another part of
the world. Exxon often has its oil refined by another producer that draws most
of its oil from, say, Venezuela.
"All the oil gets
mixed in the refining process," says Robert Beck, a consulting economist for
the Oil and Gas Journal, a trade publication in Houston.
Separate refineries also share pipelines. Mr.
Economides estimates that gasoline from 10 separate companies might run through
a pipeline at any given time.
The mixture often sits
in distribution centers for days before retailers pump it out and differentiate
it from other gasolines by mixing in additives.
tangled network of production makes it virtually impossible for consumers to
know the origin of the gasoline they buy. They can, however, choose to boycott
the firms responsible for pumping the most oil out of the Middle East to begin
Top importers with retail chains in the US
include Chevron/Texaco, Exxon/Mobil, Marathon which operates Ashland and
Speedway SuperAmerica-branded gasoline stations and Valero, which
operates Beacon, Diamond Shamrock, Total, and Ultramar stations.
Efforts to establish mass boycotts of such gasoline
retailers could be successful, because most Americans are not loyal to one
gasoline brand over another.
"As soon as we point
out to consumers that one company is worse than the others, there's no reason
for them to keep buying gas there," says Kimberly Wilson, a spokeswoman with
But critics of the Middle East-oil
boycott point out that companies that don't pump oil out of the Middle East
often get their oil from countries in Latin America, West Africa, or Southeast
Asia whose political practices also come under fire. Others add that cutting
off the flow of oil from the Middle East would cause gasoline prices in the US
Many motorists have no interest in making
that sacrifice. "I'm willing to pay more for fuel just knowing it is not coming
from the Middle East," says the webmaster of BoycottMiddleEastOil.com, who
asked that his name be withheld. "But I think Americans are too hooked on cheap
stuff to make a sacrifice right now."
alternative, experts say: Calling for automakers and the government to invest
in energy alternatives, like hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid cars that are
powered in part by electricity.
alternatives, you're caught in a bind where you have to use oil," says Mr.