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Pick Your Poison

An Environmentalist's Guide to Gasoline 1 | 2

By Jennifer Hattam and Paul Rauber

In a perfect world, we’d all commute on electric buses and do our errands by bicycle or on foot. Meanwhile, however, many of us have no choice but to drive, so we face the same dilemma: Where should an environmentalist gas up?

It’s a tough decision, because the world’s oil companies are often in the top ranks of corporate polluters, backers of despots, and deniers of global warming. The multi-trillion-dollar oil and gas industry is one of the largest enterprises on Earth, so its practices have immense consequences. The products that are its lifeblood affect the environment at every stage, from drilling rig to tanker to refinery to gas station to combustion in your engine, whence they disperse to pollute the air and warm the planet. The only benign petroleum is the stuff that’s still in the ground.

That said, the environmental and human-rights records of the oil giants are far from uniform. Some companies have cleaner refining operations and fewer oil spills, while others treat indigenous people more fairly or make greater efforts to develop energy alternatives. When looking at a company’s record (especially its “green initiatives”), keep a critical eye on the context. Do oil companies hype minimal environmental achievements? Chevron does (and it’s not alone). In a 1996 advertisement, for example, the company celebrated a bird sanctuary for the endangered Hawaiian stilt “in the heart” of one of its Oahu refineries. In reality, the “sanctuary” is a catchment pond mandated by law to help control damage in the event of a major oil spill. Some companies also try to improve their good-citizen images by making voluntary human-rights or environmental pledges, which look great on an annual report but are not enforceable.

Analyzing the oil industry is further complicated by its labyrinthine organization. Some companies—BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Texaco, Chevron, Phillips Petroleum, and Conoco—are “integrated” oil and gas operations, involved at every stage from exploration to refining to marketing to transportation. Others—CITGO, Tosco, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock, and Sunoco—focus solely on refining and marketing. (Some, like Gulf, Occidental, and Unocal, are dedicated to exploration and production. Because of their minimal roadside presence, we chose not to include them in our report.)

As in a charm contest between cigarette makers, there may not be a winner for Best Oil Company. If the inevitable trade-offs are too unsavory, there’s a simple solution—leave the car at home. When that’s impossible, the company profiles here can help you make an informed choice when you head for the gas pump.

Research assistance by John S. Lawrence

Notes on profiles: 
Black Marks: These are alleged or proven cases of environmental and human-rights abuse. Note that the “Dirty Four” companies seeking to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have recently limited their lobbying in the face of public opposition.

Refining recordEnvironmental Defense used Toxic Release Inventory data from 1997 to rank U.S. refineries based on the amount of air pollution they create per barrel of oil processed. (See PPA/cg/ or/or_rankings.html for an executive summary or to order the full report.)

Each black smokestack indicates that the company has one refinery in the worst 20 percent.

Each green smokestack stands for one refinery in the best 15 percent.

Stance on global warming: This section notes a company’s current or previous membership in one of two organizations. The first, the Global Climate Coalition, is an industry group that works to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 pact in which industrialized nations agreed to reduce their emissions of heat-trapping pollutants. (After a number of defections, the GCC closed its doors to individual companies in 2000 and reconfigured itself as an alliance of trade associations, thereby attempting to lessen the stigma attached to membership.) Alternatively, the Business Environmental Leadership Council accepts the reality of climate change and endorses the Kyoto process. However, its focus on emission-trading schemes is opposed by the Sierra Club.

Green initiatives: Decide for yourself whether these environmental overtures balance the companies’ overall records. Considering a corporation’s annual revenues (listed here for 2000) helps put its charitable donations in perspective.

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