Last week saw the unofficial opening of the nation's first Terror-Free Oil filling station, which sells only gas that originates from countries that do not support terrorism and oil companies that do not operate in the Middle East. The existence of the station was billed as a new way for U.S. customers to make a statement about energy policy and corporate behavior with their dollars.
I was chewing on the idea on Thursday afternoon, when I stopped to fill up the tank of my busted 1998 Camry on my way to the Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA. As usual, I drove past the Citgo station to fill up at the Exxon station across the street in my own tiny version of protest about the country of origin of my fuel.
These days, any purchase is fair game for an ideological battle. Since I'm headed to buy cruelty-free chicken weighted down with an entire food philosophy, why not put some thought into the implications of my gas purchase? I usually give Citgo a pass because most of the company's profits wind up on the hands of the Venezuelan government, headed by the socialist, Castro-loving, anti-globalization, and virulently anti-American Hugo Chavez.
The idea is not original. In fact, I'm not even the first person on my block to have the thought. My Boston neighborhood and Citgo have had a surprisingly fraught relationship over the years. A huge illuminated Citgo sign near Fenway Park has long been a Boston landmark, but after Chavez called President Bush "the devil" last September, my city councilor called for the sign to be taken down and replaced with an American flag:
"I'm a Boston guy-born in 1967, the year the Sox won the Pennant. And it used to mean something different to me. But, symbols are powerful things, and right now when I see that Citgo symbol, the only thing it symbolizes for me, is a dictator that means to hurt our economy and hurt our way of life."
And that wasn't the first time the Boston Citgo sign had come under fire as a symbol of energy policy. In 1979, Governor Edward J. King used it to demonstrate his commitment to energy conservation-by turning it off. And then there's the surest sign that a Citgo boycott is the way to go: Commondreams.org, a site whose editorial positions I rarely agree with, is sponsoring a BUY-cott of Citgo to "help fuel a democratic revolution in Venezuela."
Why Exxon? For the most part, Exxon has held firm on the evils of Kyoto and the dubious evidence that proposed interventions will work in response to dubious levels of global warming and earned the enmity of practically every socially-conscious buyer in America. Lately, they're showing signs of having gone soft on the issue. But I like to think that my gas money balances out other, ongoing boycotts of Exxon stations. Anyway, some of my best friends are Alleged Exxon Mobil Whores.
Mostly, though, I like to support companies that are under attack for making "highest profits in the history of the world" Quoth Sen. Hillary Clinton at a recent DNC meeting: "I want to take those profits, and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund." Ridiculous government subsidies and tax breaks aside, Exxon profits shouldn't be the federal government's business and demagoguing about excess profit makes my blood run cold.
I'm far from alone in my (admittedly lackadaisical) efforts to buy ideologically-appropriate gas. If I'd cruised past the Exxon and continued until I reached Omaha, the site of the new Terror-Free oil station, it's good to know that I would have had even more options with which to express my opinions on geopolitics by paying at the pump, not just in a voting booth.
"What we wanted to do we tried to figure the way to stop terrorist financing," says James Baeur, who was part of the early stages of the Terror-Free Oil Initiative. "From what we understand the majority of the financing that goes to terrorism is oil revenues. There are other sources, but nothing compares to oil revenues. Like most of America, we were under the impression that most of the oil we use comes from the Middle East, but our research showed that this was not the case."
Spokesman Joe Kaufman said the project began as outreach: "We were contacting a lot of gas companies, the executives. We couldn't get on the phone with anybody important." The goal was to convince oil executives that they were "hurting America by purchasing crude oil from the Middle East," and, more important, to convince companies who were already using non-Middle East oil to advertise that fact.
After making no headway, the idea of a Terror-Free gas station was born. But finding a supplier wasn't easy.
"The situation is pretty bleak," says Kaufmann. Even the supplier they finally settled on, Sinclair Oil, can't guarantee that they are 100 percent terror-free. Most of the oil they buy is from the United States or Canada, but some is purchased on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which creates bundles of oil from various countries of origin. Kaufman says Sinclair was the best available option.
The group has done almost no publicity for the station. "As soon as the signs went up," Kaufman said, "we started getting calls." At first, they were exited to be featured on every TV station in Omaha, but when someone sent them a clip of a segment from a network in Russia, said Kaufman, they realized they were onto something big.
None of the oil executives who snubbed the Terror-Free Oil initiative's calls have made contact with the group yet. But they have gotten "dozens of calls from investors looking to open more stations." Until those stations open for business, though, I'll have to content myself with skipping Citgo and hitting the Exxon.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is associate editor of reason.