The messages speak to frustrated motorists who have seen prices at the pump creep upward but are powerless to do anything about it.
The protests come in anonymously written e-mail chain letters circulating the country. Some urge motorists not to buy gas from the largest oil companies or companies that import oil from the Middle East. Many urge recipients to forward the message to 10 people, with the goal of mobilizing millions of people who will force oil companies to respond to consumer demands for lower prices.
"Isn't it funny how the prices sky-rocketed as the storm approached the mainland, even though the gas in the tanks at local stations had been bought and paid for long before that," says one e-mail. "Nobody begrudges fair profits for any company, but taking advantage like this is criminal!"
One e-mail suggests such a collective effort could get the world's largest oil companies to "choke on their stockpiles." Another suggests it would "hit the entire industry with a net loss of over $4.6 billion."
High ambitions, to be sure. But despite the enthusiasm of the participants, such electronic activism has never succeeded in hurting gas companies or lowering prices. According to many consumer groups and oil companies, such e-mails are often based on false premises and take advantage of consumers' ignorance about the oil industry and why prices go up.
David P. Mikkelson, co-founder of Snopes.com, a Web site devoted to debunking urban myths, said that such e-mails circulate any time gas prices rise but that they generally have little, if any, impact. "People seem to really be taken in by symbolic protests," he said. "They want to change things, but they don't want to actually put out anything in time or effort. It just means instead of buying gas today, you buy it tomorrow."
One Internet-led effort in the spring of 1999 tried to hold a "gas out" to protest prices that had risen to an average of $1.64 a gallon in California, but it failed miserably as gas companies reported seeing no difference in sales that day and as newspapers reported that consumers continued to fill up their sport-utility vehicles. The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's trade group, said one-day boycotts end up hurting only gas station owners, many of whom operate as franchisees and have little power in pricing gasoline.
Maureen Reynolds, who works for a Democratic state legislator in Maryland, said she was forwarded an e-mail about not buying gas on Sept. 10 and thought it made sense, even though she knew it would hurt only the retailers. She said she has not bought gas from Exxon Mobil Corp. since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 out of protest. "I still do think it's worthwhile," Reynolds said. "If one station suffers, its a minor thing. . . . When it's a national thing, it starts to hit home."
Other e-mails have tried to address consumer frustration by arguing that the United States relies too much on the Middle East for its oil supplies. One e-mail urges customers to protest the United States' reliance on oil from the Middle East and urges consumers to buy gas from companies that do not import oil from that region. "The Saudis are boycotting American goods," the e-mail says. "We should return the favor. An interesting thought is to boycott their GAS. Every time you fill up the car, you can avoid putting more money into the coffers of Saudi Arabia."
The e-mail cites U.S. Department of Energy statistics, listing Citgo Petroleum Corp., Sunoco Inc., Sinclair Oil Corp. and BP PLC among the companies that do not import oil from the Middle East and lists the hundreds of millions of oil barrels bought by Shell Oil Co., Chevron Corp. and Exxon from the region.
According to the Energy Department, the e-mail is misleading. One-third of the nation's oil imports come from Canada and Mexico, and nearly a quarter of imported oil comes from the Persian Gulf. Although not every oil company obtains its supplies from the Middle East, it is nearly impossible to know where the gasoline at any particular station comes from. Oil companies such as Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP produce and buy their oil from various sources and then sell it to refineries. Some oil companies refine their own oil and sell it to other refineries. Gasoline moves from refineries through major pipelines to gas terminals before being distributed to gas stations.
"At the retail level, you can't really tell where the gas came from -- forget which country," said Jonathan Cogan, spokesman for the Energy Information Administration. "Your Brand X gas station and Brand Y across the street may well be getting gas from the same bulk terminal. You can't even tell where the gas is being refined from."
John R. Ratliff, editor of a Web site called BreakTheChain.org, which is devoted to debunking popular chain-letter e-mails, said the chain e-mails are popular because gas is a product that people need but little is understood about what goes into pricing. "When consumers are frustrated and outraged, they want to do something, but there's only so much they can do," Ratliff said. "It boils down to simple economics: If you want to spend less money on fuel, then use less fuel. That is . . . maybe the only solution to the problem."