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Boycott BP? Not so simple

June 28, 2010|Ronald D. White

Jesse Torres, an avid sport fisherman, says he's boycotting BP products out of anger over the company's handling of its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the other day, he could be found filling up his GMC Yukon with BP gas at an Arco station in Santa Monica.

"Oh, I see it now," Torres said, squinting at BP's small green-and-yellow sunburst logo on the Arco sign. "It's horrible what is happening down there. Next time I'll go somewhere else for my gasoline, and I'm going to start reading the signs more carefully."

Environmentalists and consumer activists have been urging citizens to voice their outrage at BP with their wallets. "Boycott BP," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, "because BP must pay."

That's easier said than done, experts say.

Boycotts are usually difficult to pull off under normal circumstances, and in the case of BP, there are additional hurdles.

Torres and many other consumers may not be aware of BP's many tentacles. Indeed, few foreign companies have ever become as deeply rooted in the U.S. economy as BP.

You've probably been touched by a BP product or brand if you've ever flown on a commercial airliner, purchased an item that was delivered to the U.S. by ship, turned on a natural gas stove or water heater, warmed a home with fuel oil, gotten a drink from an AM/PM "thirst oasis," filled up at an Arco station or bought Amoco fuel or Castrol motor oil.

BP's five U.S. refineries provide fuel and other petroleum products not just for BP and Arco dealers but also for stations that aren't affiliated with a major brand, including pumps operated by supermarket giant Safeway.

In addition, BP sells aviation fuel to several major airlines and is one of the nation's biggest suppliers of lubricants for cargo and cruise ships.

BP's natural gas clients include Southern California Gas Co.

Customers of Southern California Edison use electricity generated by BP-owned wind farms.

"I'm not sure it's possible to boycott BP," said Bruce Bullock, executive director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University. "When you combine the things that you can't see with the things you don't know, it's virtually impossible to avoid a corporation with the reach of BP. Most consumer boycotts are ineffective for that reason."

On a recent morning, Torres wasn't the only one who didn't notice the small BP logo and name on Arco's blue-and-red signs and pumps.

Andy Murphy, 22, a case manager for a social work organization, said he came to the Santa Monica Arco station because it was close to his office.

"I probably wouldn't have come here if I had known this was BP gasoline," Murphy said.

BP does operate service stations and convenience stores under its own name. East of the Rocky Mountains, about 9,700 service stations carry the BP name and sell Amoco products. British Petroleum, as the company was then known, bought out Chicago-based Amoco Corp. in 1998.

In California and four other Western states, BP sells fuel through about 1,350 Arco stations.

Those are the legacy of the Los Angeles company once known as Atlantic Richfield Co., which entered the BP fold in 2000. Most of those Arco service stations have AM/PM convenience stores.

But most of the BP and Arco stations are run by independent owners, usually with one or a few outlets. A boycott against those stores may hurt the owners more than BP because the company can always find buyers for its wares in a worldwide market.

Since the gulf oil disaster, protests and boycotts have cost BP service station operators as much as 20% of their normal business, said John Kleine, executive director of the BP Amoco Marketers Assn., which represents 475 independent service station owners east of the Rockies.

"Some of these service station owners have been in the business for two or three generations. They hire local people," Kleine said.

Arco stations in the West have suffered little disruption, said Scott Dean, a BP spokesman for refining and marketing.

"We would hope that people wouldn't penalize those local businesspeople who had nothing to do with the spill," Dean said.

Arco's current advertising campaign doesn't mention the BP connection. Dean said promoting the parent company has never been a priority in the West, where Arco has a strong brand presence.

Last year, BP held about 10% of the U.S. market while its Arco brand had a 20.5% market share in California, said Trilby Lundberg of the Lundberg Survey, an energy research firm.

Lundberg said statistics on the boycott's effect on sales weren't yet available, but anecdotal evidence was mounting that "at least some BP marketers and retailers have suffered financial fallout from BP's oil spill -- this in an overall bad economy with poor gasoline sales."

Ben Raouf, 55, who has owned the Arco station at Lincoln and Ocean Park boulevards in Santa Monica for nine years, said his pumps have been busy.

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