For some BP customers, convenience trumps call for protest

Marvin Alfaro, 32, of Woodbridge, fills up his truck at a BP gas station in Columbia Heights.
Marvin Alfaro, 32, of Woodbridge, fills up his truck at a BP gas station in Columbia Heights. "I don't want to put blame on BP," he says. (Ian Shapira - Washington Post)
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By Ian Shapira
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Marco Mora, an auto body shop owner, was driving in Columbia Heights when he realized his Mercedes needed some premium love, so he pulled in under the feel-good green sign marked "BP" and opted for some $3.29-a-gallon Ultimate. Despite calls to boycott the company responsible for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Mora never even considered steering clear of BP's gas.

"Of course you feel bad, but it's not only the company's fault," he said. "It's the government's fault. You need to regulate these guys."

At BP stations across the Washington region, customers say the oil spill, now in its second month, is tragic and distressing, but an accident for which they blame other businesses and the federal government as well as BP. Many motorists said they end up buying from BP purely out of convenience. Besides, they ask: Why complicate a routine fill-up with political or moral questions?

But organizers of a BP boycott -- including Public Citizen, the District-based nonprofit organization, and a Facebook group with more than 75,000 members -- say that shopping elsewhere for gas would send the oil company a powerful message.

Public Citizen, founded in 1971 by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, recently launched an online BP Boycott Pledge that has collected more than 11,000 signatures from people promising to forgo all BP products for three months. A Facebook group called Boycott BP -- its insignia features a crossed-out BP logo -- urges people to avoid BP stations and affiliated companies.

Kasy Tekle, assistant manager of the BP in Columbia Heights, said the gas station has not seen a decline in sales. "We're okay for now," he said. "I don't know much about the gas spill, but so far we're doing okay." A call to a BP spokesman was not returned Monday.

Trilby Lundberg, a California-based oil industry analyst, said BP boycotts are minimal and probably would not affect the company's financial performance or retail sales. "The general public may be aware that the spill is not a gas brand issue and that it's an offshore oil rig problem," she said.

Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen's energy policy program director, acknowledged that the boycotts have hardly wounded BP's bottom line but said the effort could help pierce the company's eco-friendly image. Slocum suspects more would turn against BP if the spill directly affected this region.

"There are people, no matter what is going on, who will continue to prioritize convenience over taking a moral or political stand," Slocum said. "The spill might be something on their minds, but it's not in their face."

It is too soon to tell whether the BP spill will trigger the sustained level of outrage aimed at Exxon in 1989, when one of its tankers ran aground near the Alaskan shore, spilling 11 million gallons of crude into the Prince William Sound. A few demonstrations have been held outside BP stations in Florida, New Jersey and Ohio; in London, Greenpeace activists scaled BP's headquarters in protest.

Washington motorists said the spill was not on their minds when they wheeled into a BP station.

"I was on 'E,' and I knew I wasn't going to make it much further -- and I want to run my air conditioner because it's really hot," said Paulette Washington, an Arlington sales representative who was filling up her Honda at the BP on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. "It's not like I was, like, 'Let me find a Shell.' "

Washington did not excuse the oil company's actions. "I don't think anyone should come to BP's aid," she said. "It shouldn't be on taxpayers."

Emily Davies, 37, filling up next to Washington, disagreed. "I do think the federal government should be involved," she said. "I don't want the environment to suffer." Davies, who recalled trying to avoid Exxon stations after the 1989 spill, said convenience outweighed politics this time. "I usually go to Texaco, but it was on the wrong side of the road."

Other BP customers sympathized with the company's predicament. "It was an accident; things happen," said Marvin Alfaro, 32, a Woodbridge construction worker, at the BP in Columbia Heights. "Maybe it could have been prevented. I feel bad for BP. They're losing business."

But some consumers were actively avoiding BP. Glenn Tolbert, an office manager, was filling up his rental car at a Hess station on Rhode Island Avenue NW after deliberately passing by the BP up the street. "I honestly did think about" the spill, he said. "I watch the news. We have this spill, and it's not stopping yet. It's polluting the environment. It's just my small thing to say, 'I don't like what's going on.' "

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