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A paradox at the pump

BP's `green' gas station features an eco-friendly design and video tips but offers no alternative to the usual carbon-based fuels.

February 21, 2007|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

The nation's first certifiably green gasoline station sports a futuristic metal canopy covered in shiny triangles of uncoated, recyclable stainless steel.

The rooftop holds 90 solar panels and a collection system that gathers rainfall to irrigate drought-tolerant plants nearby. The underside is outfitted with low-energy lighting. Cars will roll across concrete mixed with bits of recycled glass.

At a time when oil companies are feeling the heat from lawmakers and motorists worried about global warming and high fuel prices, British oil giant BP plans to open Friday what it calls "a little better gas station" -- albeit one that will sell the same hydrocarbon-based fuels blamed for worsening air pollution and climate change.

Dubbed Helios House by BP, the eco-friendly station at the corner of Robertson and Olympic boulevards replaces a slightly run-down Thrifty station that served customers from Los Angeles and nearby Beverly Hills. The new gas station was built with cutting-edge earth-friendly design, using such materials as farmed wood and less-polluting paint, and its customers will be pushed to save energy.

"The whole site is really a lab," said Ann Hand, senior vice president for global marketing and innovation at BP, once known as British Petroleum. "Everything we have on this site is about reuse. My hope is that people will see that they can do little things ... to move up to a greener lifestyle."

Members of the station's "green team" will check the tire pressure on customers' cars and advise that properly inflated tires boost gas mileage. They will give out energy-saving tips, printed on recycled paper embedded with flower seeds that sprout when the card is planted in the ground.

While its customers pump gas -- a three-minute task, on average -- BP will show eco-vignettes and green videos on screens built into the fuel dispensers. The oil company is considering adding biodiesel and alternative fuels to the site, as well as selling carbon offsets to customers who want to make up for their fuel use, Hand said.

"This is just the starting point," Hand said. "Day 1 is not the final product." BP will encourage operators of its Arco and Thrifty branded stations to adopt some of the green practices showcased at Helios House, Hand said.

BP declined to disclose how much it cost to build Helios House, although Hand said the price was in line with conventional construction. "We will not be charging consumers more than what's normal for this market," she said.

Hand acknowledged that critics were likely to dismiss Helios House as an effort to generate positive publicity for BP, whose reputation has been battered in recent years by a deadly refinery accident, air pollution settlements, pipeline problems and more.

Construction on Helios House has been hidden behind huge nylon shades covered with pictures of giant grass blades. But word spread online after BP started advertising on Craigslist, seeking "smart, ethical, conscientious team members to educate consumers about taking small steps in the right direction to help reduce their impact on the environment."

Siel Ju, a graduate student who writes an online blog under the name greenlagirl.com, is among the skeptics who caught wind of the BP project last month.

"It's just very ironic," she said Tuesday. "I thought it was sort of funny that a place that, bottom line, depends on selling gas is trying to market itself as a green company."

Bernadette Del Chiaro of Environment California was less charitable.

"It's better than doing nothing. But it's not the kind of leadership that we ultimately need from big, big companies like BP," said Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for the Los Angeles-based group. "I'm not extremely impressed."

BP's new green gas station is an extension of the company's "Beyond Petroleum" marketing campaign that has highlighted the oil company's investments in solar and other forms of alternative energy.

BP, one of the world's largest solar panel manufacturers, this month contributed $500 million toward alternative-fuel research through a venture led by UC Berkeley.

"It's hard to critique it because it's more than other oil companies are doing, but it's really not getting us 'beyond petroleum,' " Del Chiaro said of the eco-station project. "It's kind of green-washing for a product that is extremely dirty."

Hand, the BP executive, said she was aware of the criticism and was "happy to see the active debate" over Helios House, a name derived from the oil company's sunburst logo.

"It's not a PR stunt," she said. "Even though we've had a series of unfortunate events, you've got to keep looking forward and innovate. We know it's a bit of a paradox, but we don't think that's an excuse to do nothing."

Charles Lockwood, an environmental and real estate consultant in L.A., said BP's move was part of a "tsunami" of green projects sweeping the country.

"A green gas station is not as far-fetched as it initially might seem," he said.

Helios House is set to win certification this week as the nation's 735th building -- and first gasoline station -- to be certified as green by the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington-based nonprofit, council spokeswoman Taryn Holowka said.

"This goes beyond adding a solar panel to the roof and putting in a low-flow toilet," Lockwood said of the BP project. "If they're willing to take this first step, then I think we should be cautiously optimistic."

After all, educating consumers about saving energy is crucial to reducing global warming, he said, "and this is reaching out to people who are not necessarily members of the Sierra Club."

elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

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