Voting With Our Wallets

It’s getting hard to know where to buy our gas.  The BP company, by all accounts, was running a sub-standard operation in the gulf.  The other oil company executives who testified in front of Congress were quick to say that their firms would never have approved the procedures that were followed on the ill-fated BP rig.  The fact that their rigs haven’t had problems lends some credence to their testimony.

So, since we have the power to vote with our wallets, it’s tempting to avoid buying BP gas for our cars.  That’s where it gets tricky.

The Citgo company is the national oil company of Hugo Chavez, the totalitarian leader of Venezuela, who has eliminated his political opposition, nationalized companies, and does whatever he can to foment revolution in Central and South America.  I don’t feel good supporting him.

Exxon-Mobil was the culprit in the Exon-Valdez oil spill.  While much of the wildlife has recovered from that horrible disaster, some species have never returned, and may not.  Who wants to buy gas from them?  And, since Exxon-Mobil is the biggest, I believe, when times are good they make enormous amounts of money, (even though as a percentage of their sales their profits are pretty modest – under 10%).

I don’t know which company was responsible for the Santa Barbara oil spill back in 1969.  There was a big oil spill off the Mexican coast years ago.  I’ve heard it said that the Nigerian oil fields are poorly run and often leak large quantities of crude.  It would be difficult to find an oil company that hasn’t experienced multiple spills of greater or lesser extent.

Mostly, oil is a commodity, and I’m not so sure anybody could tell you what oil company explored for, drilled for, refined, or delivered the gasoline you buy at any gas station.  So, when we decide to punish an oil company by not buying oil at one of their name-brand gas stations, I suspect we’re mostly punishing the owner of the station, which is often a local business person who makes very little profit per gallon of gas.

I hear the sound of some readers saying, “well, that’s why we shouldn’t drive cars, heat our homes, generate electricity, or operate factories with oil or natural gas.”  That may be a noble objective, but despite efforts currently underway to promote non-fossil fuels, the world economy depends, and will depend for many years, on oil and natural gas.  And, during a continuing global financial crisis, abrupt increases in energy taxes or other regulations to contain use of fossil fuels will likely result in the loss of more jobs. 

We could also point out that deep-water drilling is done instead of safer shallow-water, or on-land drilling, because the government won’t issue permits for these types of drilling.  And, during the current shut-down of rigs in the gulf, our less-environmentally sensitive competitors, like Brazil and Viet Nam, of all places, will be happy to jump in and lease those rigs for their own drilling.

BP has promised to pay for the damage it has caused, and I hope they mean it, and that they aren’t driven into bankruptcy before every legitimate claim is paid.  Realistically, there is probably no way to un-do some of the damage they’ve done.  I know we all hope things come back to nearly normal soon in the gulf, and perhaps enough lessons will be learned from this disaster to help prevent future problems.

And, we can also hope the administration, and future administrations, will learn to better respond to debacles such as the oil spill, and how to better monitor their regulatory agencies to make sure they’re doing their jobs properly.  The government shouldn’t be an enemy of private enterprise, but it shouldn’t be negligent in its duty to regulate in industries where such horrible damage can occur if oversight isn’t sufficient.

So, in terms of what we can do, I guess we can vote with our wallets, or with our feet – walking where we’d normally drive.  Or, we can support organizations that are working to save the wildlife and habitat that’s being damaged.

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