May 102010

Although we are developing a healthy distaste for it, petrol remains a necessity for most of us.  This is unlikely to change until technologies like the GM-Volt become more available. Anyone trying to minimise their negative global impact must therefore seek the most socially responsible petrol from a set of fairly unpleasant options.  I posed the question to myself this way: “how can I buy the least evil petrol?”

In (mostly) free market economies we have a lot of power as consumers, as suppliers will follow demand.  By carefully selecting the goods and services that we consume, we can exercise our power of demand and literally alter the behaviour of much larger entities such as multi-national corporations.  This is why it is important to seek socially responsible petrol.

It turns out to be rather difficult to determine which petrol is the least evil.  This difficulty is largely due to the historically anti-social behaviour of oil companies and the current pressure to publicise environmental concern.  Some oil companies trade under different names in different countries, which doesn’t help.

The Better World Handbook ranks Sunoco first and BP second in social responsibility, and the Sierra Club likewise recommend Sunoco and BPSunoco operates in North American, and so is not an option here in Australia; BP, as the third largest global energy company, certainly is.  Each of these rankings were determined by examining quite a broad range of positive and negative factors.  For instance, BP looses credit for

  • an Alaskan oil pipeline spill,
  • South American human rights violations,
  • having supported the apartheid state in South Africa,
  • and “greenwashing” (publicity to look greener than it is).

On the other hand, BP gains points for

  • solar powered petrol stations,
  • plans to invest $8 billion over 2005-2015 in alternative energy from sun, wind, natural gas and hydrogen,
  • self-imposed emissions caps,
  • Malaysian global warming education programme,
  • being in a list of 100 best companies for working mothers.

And these are only a sample of the factors considered.  It would be difficult to perform a more thorough ranking of petrol options than these lists provide, and their broad agreement suggests reliability.

Other companies do not fare so well.  Shell (“Royal Dutch Shell”, based in the Netherlands) seems to have a very poor historical record, but must be working to improve as it ranks near the middle.  Caltex is an Australian trading name of Chevron, which ranks just below the middle.  Mobil (ExxonMobil since 1999)  is at the bottom of both lists!

United Petroleum is one that I can’t find much information about.  Perhaps as an “independent and successful Australian owned oil company” it does not feature in the big international discussions.  United was the first independent oil company in Australia to introduce bio-ethanol enhanced fuel, and is beginning to offer E85.  It certainly sounds like it is competing with industry best-practise social responsibility, but I can’t find this verified anywhere but their own trumpet.

So for now, I will go out of my way to buy petrol from BP.  I will strongly avoid Mobil, and consider Shell and Caltex (in that order) when BP is unavailable. I like to give custom to Australian companies, and so will continue to support United while I try to learn more about its operations.  If it turns out to have betrayed my trust, I will certainly let both it and you know.

  11 Responses to “Searching for the least evil petrol”

  1. Thanks for the link, Clansi. I was unaware of this spill.

    The difficulty here is partly a statistical certainty: the largest companies sell the most oil and thus do the most digging. The significant size of BP suggests that participates in more more oil drilling than most others, making it more likely to be involved in mishaps like this.

    I guess the relevant thing here is how BP responds to this and manages the spill. I shall watch with interest.

  2. Isn’t not buying the cheapest available petrol along similar lines to shooting ones self in the foot?

  3. To be honest, there are other things that are as important to me as cost. If I knew that the cheapest petrol available was lower quality, and would wear my engine out, then I would avoid it. I would be prepared to pay a little more for quality. We are lucky in Australia that pretty much all petrol stations sell good quality fuel.

    However, I am also prepared to pay a little more for social responsibility and sustainability. It cannot be said that all petrol stations are above a satisfactory minimum standard in this area.

    And the overall difference in fuel costs between different distributors is minimal. Even the 4c per litre discount is only a few dollars per fill-up. At my petrol consumption rate, this is only a few dollars per week. My choice of milk brand makes more difference in my budget!

  4. Yes, this is true. In fact, it is similar to buying eggs.

    I do not buy the “caged” eggs even though they are cheaper, because of some repulsion to the lifestyle inflicted on the chickens used to create the eggs.

    However, this act becomes some sort of silent, singularly ineffective protest unless consumers as a whole join in veto(ing) the caged eggs.

  5. By writing about my search and sharing it with others, I hope to start overcoming the “silent” part of this protest. I’m also going to write letters to the Australian fuel companies letting them know that social responsibility is a priority for me when I buy petrol. I will congratulate BP, and encourage them to do more. I will let the rest know that they have lost a customer because of their lack of concern in this area, and I will tell them that the 4c discount doesn’t influence me at all.

    But you’re right: on my own it will remain fairly ineffective as a protest. At least I will personally feel satisfied that I am taking the most ethical course of action based on the information available.

    So I encourage you to join me in exercising your own “power of demand”. Let petrol companies know that you also value social responsibility. And remember, when it comes to eggs the combined “power of demand” has caused the issue to cross over into the legislative sphere: battery cages are banned in many European countries for instance.

  6. I always wondered why someone would buy petrol from BP when it is almost always more expensive. Now suddenly I’m deliberately trying to fuel up at BP service stations.

    On the cost factor, BP’s price is usually about a cent or more than the non-discounted price at Shell or Caltex, thus creating a price difference of 5 cents if discount vouchers are available. For my 45L tank thats $2.25 per fill up which equates to around $110 a year. $2 a week sounds manageable. Although $110 saved each year would be nice, thats not the reality of how I spend money.

    Thinking the cost factor through I realised that if I’m not buying petrol using discount vouchers, there isn’t the compulsive need to buy more than the $30 threshold at the grocery chain, which means that I am more likely to go to a traditional fruit and vege shop. I imagine there are a whole lot of benefits in changing grocery shop as well.

  7. I had not thought about avoiding the compulsive need to buy more than $30 worth of groceries at a time. That is a good point, and I guess (depending on buying habits) it could actually end up saving money!

    The price difference is certainly pretty minimal. If you are tempted by a drink or packet of chips when you go in to pay, chances are you will spend more than the $2 difference in fuel costs. I’m glad to hear another person who considers this manageable.

    I’m sure there are many social benefits to shopping in local grocers rather than the large chain supermarkets. Maybe I’ll look into this and write up my findings. But there is another benefit to consciously paying a little more for petrol: it is more likely that we will avoid using it (where possible).

  8. Good points Adrian!

    I’ve gotten very frustrated with woolworths lately (because they are no longer allowing customers to use ‘credit’ with their visa debit cards) and decided yesterday to go with fruit and veg. shops and smaller (local) grocers. Opens up a whole range of benefits!!

  9. […] I couldn’t find much information about the United Petroleum in my recent research into the social responsibility of petrol providers, I sent them a direct inquiry.  They responded quickly, which is good; but the response does not […]

  10. The response by BP to the recent oil spill isn’t sounding too well in their favour:

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