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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Who Should We Be Mad at This Time?

We’ll have plenty of time to be mad at BP. We’ll be dealing with the effects of this spill for the rest of my lifetime. Some frustrated Americans want to boycott BP stations. But really, who are you going to boycott? Who should we be mad at? Most importantly, will we really do something about it this time?

Almost none of the stations that sell gas with a BP label are actually owned by BP. Local BP stations are generally owned by local small businesspeople. BP doesn’t care if you boycott stations with their logo; if they are stuck with excess stock, they just sell it to the thousands of stations with unbranded names. You may be buying BP gas and not even know it.

Oil is a globally traded commodity, moving from ground to refinery to pipeline to terminal to retailer in a system driven by the international oil exchanges. Gas from any station could have originated with any other company. Many unbranded and off-brand stations around here sell gas from BP and other large oil companies. Out west, BP uses the name “Arco” and its the biggest gas retailer across five states, but nobody is boycotting Arco because they don’t know it’s really BP.

The Department of Defense buys over 3 billion gallons of jet fuel alone each year. Our military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan go through 90 million gallons each month. In 2009, the Pentagon’s largest individual bulk petroleum contractor was BP, at over $2.2 billion.

Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders are members of the several New York State and New York City pension funds, to which well over a million others contribute through various taxes and fees. As of this moment, the BP stock held by these funds is still worth $665 million. Officials may bring a stockholder suit against BP management. Take a number. This is why environmental accountability and social responsibility must be critical factors in determining public investment. Not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s smart business.

That was the idea behind the Valdez Principles, developed after the Exxon Valdez spill disaster in 1989. Now officially renamed the CERES Principles (pronounced “Series,” after its coordinating organization), they are meant to set standards for environmental conduct by corporations and to help guide responsible investment. The city of Ashland, Oregon displays these Principles on its web site, which it adopted for its own operations. I wonder how many Long Island municipalities adopted these principles two decades ago, only to have it all fade from institutional memory over the years.

We were all mad in 1989. I didn’t buy Exxon gasoline for many years. In 1992, I ran out of gas out in Suffolk County because I passed an Exxon station. 19 years later, in 2008, the final settlements amounted to less than 10 percent of the corporation’s profits during the year of the spill. We got mad, and we learned very little and changed even less. Seven weeks ago, Exxon-Mobil had another ruptured pipeline in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, spilling over one million gallons. It’s the tenth large spill there in the past two years. Half the residents of the delta don’t have clean drinking water, but they do have 606 oilfields in their midst.

Corporations are structured so that rewards are only based on dividends and stock prices, so that’s what they do. It’s what they are.

When President Obama addressed the nation about the spill last week, the most astonishing moment was his description of “the days of cheap and easily accessible oil” as “numbered.” He’s not planning on doing much about it. Let’s not get crazy.

We’ve had three decades to start treating energy self-sufficiency and alternative energy with the same urgency with which we treat war or American Idol or Pilates. Now it’s hard to see how we will do what has to be done without some economic dislocation. Millions of Americans want to go green, but only if it doesn’t increase gas prices, eliminate any jobs, reduce corporate profits, raise taxes, change our driving habits or involve personal inconvenience of any kind.

Who should we be mad at?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net