Which oil companies are more eco-friendly than the rest?

(Michael Sloan For The Washington Post)
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By Brendan Borrell
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Back in April, a reader asked which gas station was the most eco-friendly choice, and BP came out pretty high on the Lantern's list. We don't need to crunch the numbers again to know that the company formerly known as "Beyond Petroleum" has gone from hero to zero with a series of preventable missteps that led to the spilling of as much as 179 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon blowout now threatens our coastline and fisheries in what President Obama called a "massive, unprecedented environmental disaster."

Not only did BP take shortcuts during the drilling of the well and ignore warning signs in the final few weeks before it blew, but it has repeatedly botched the cleanup effort and engaged in ham-handed tactics to keep the media in the dark. In recent weeks, BP's dismal safety record has come to light, the Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation, and the dangers of offshore drilling have become clear through photographs of oil-slathered pelicans and rotting dolphin carcasses.

Regardless, few of the Lantern's pals are hanging up their car keys anytime soon. So it may be worth asking how BP fares in comparison to the rest of the world's oil suppliers.

John Vidal of the Guardian, among others, has argued that the level of transparency and oversight in the United States beats the shady extraction operations in developing countries such as Nigeria. And while most of the "supermajor" oil companies (including ExxonMobil and Chevron) compile their environmental stats in annual reports and fall under the purview of U.S. or European laws, state-owned oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco and Mexico's Pemex, control more than 90 percent of the world's oil and are beholden to the whims of their rulers, elected or otherwise. Pemex's 1979 Ixtoc 1 oil spill in the gulf still ranks among the world's biggest, 10 times the official size of Exxon Valdez.

Big Oil's companies not only extract and refine their own crude; they also purchase oil from state-owned enterprises and from other private companies. As a result, a significant fraction of Big Oil's environmental impact won't appear on the balance sheets of these big companies. To complicate matters further, the gasoline sold at a company-owned service station or a branded franchise does not necessarily come from that company's refinery.

The Lantern scanned the last three years of annual sustainability reports put out voluntarily by the six supermajor oil companies and by smaller refiners. To simplify things, let's separate out the big and the small, and focus on the two metrics to keep in mind: the amount of oil spilled by each company and the amount of CO2 emitted per barrel of production.

The numbers for oil spills alone are somewhat dismaying. About 8.5 million gallons of oil were inadvertently released on land and in the sea in 2008, the last year for which numbers are available. A large fraction of that oil was cleaned up as quickly as possible, but it doesn't take long for pollution to mat down bird feathers or seep into freshwater supplies. In that year, just three companies -- ConocoPhillips, Total and Royal Dutch Shell -- accounted for 71 percent of the total. (The trio didn't perform much better in 2006 or 2007, either.) Although BP maintained an excellent record on oil spills during that period, today it seems as if that was due more to good luck than to good practices. So for now the supermajor champ in minimizing spills is Chevron, with the runner-up slot going to Exxon.

What about carbon emissions? According to their annual sustainability reports, the biggest oil companies have made some strides. Some have tried to limit "flaring," the burning of excess gases or liquids, which accounts for up to 30 percent of their annual carbon emissions. Others are powering some of their plants with renewable energy and investing in such things as algae-based biofuel. For all that, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips still emit more than 200 pounds of carbon dioxide for every barrel of oil they produce. (A barrel contains 42 gallons.) Shell and Chevron aren't much better. BP was significantly more efficient than its supermajor competitors, generating only about 100 pounds of carbon dioxide per barrel.

That's the information on the big players. But a smaller producer may be a more eco-friendly choice.

Figuring out how to discriminate among the little guys poses its own problems. Take Philadelphia-based Sunoco. It's the only oil company to sign on to the Ceres principles, which include protection of the biosphere, reduction of waste and audited environmental reporting. But those environmental bona fides shouldn't distract us from less-direct impacts.

Like many small oil companies, Sunoco doesn't do any drilling. The company refines crude to produce fuel and other products, but it relies on others to extract the stuff from the Earth. In 2008, according to Sunoco's sustainability report from that year, the company purchased 26 percent of its 300 million barrels of crude from Nigeria, where the drilling industry is known for pollution and human rights abuses.

New York-based Hess, with most of its outlets on the East Coast, may be a better choice. Its numbers on oil spills and greenhouse gas emissions are the best in the business, and, for what it's worth, Forbes magazine ranked the company as one of the 100 most trustworthy traded on U.S. exchanges. Hess also aims to power 10 percent of its own operations from renewable sources and has plans to reduce flaring in Algeria and Equatorial Guinea by 50 percent over the next five years.

Whichever station you use, it's important to remember one thing: The road trip that's best for the planet is the shortest one. You may be tempted to drive some extra miles to fill up at a specific company, but don't stray too far out of your way to avoid BP, or all the benefits will be negated.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com. Read previous Green Lantern columns here.

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