Which brand of gas station should I use on my road trip?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 11 2010 7:21 AM

Pump for the Planet

Which brand of gas station should I use on my road trip?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I'm getting set for a long summer road trip with my friends. I know we won't be doing the atmosphere any favors by driving cross-country, but we'd like to limit the damage as much as we can. Does it matter where we stop for gas along the way? Is one brand of pumping station better than another?

It's true that driving coast-to-coast is going to produce some heavy carbon emissions, but there are some ways to reduce your impact on the environment. You can save energy, for example, by keeping your windows closed—and your A/C on—as you coast down the highway. When you stop to refuel, don't bother getting high-octane gas if your vehicle isn't designed to use it. And, as you suggest in your question, try to avoid the pump stations run by the world's nastiest corporate villains.

No fossil fuel company has a clean record when it comes to the environment. Drilling, transporting, and refining oil produces massive amounts of greenhouse gas. The industry also pollutes the air with soot and other chemicals, and as we've seen in recent weeks, companies like BP end up releasing tons of hazardous waste into oceans and streams. Even so, some companies are more diligent about their environmental responsibilities than others. Activist groups have made an attempt to rank the major oil companies according to their records; see, for example, the lists compiled by Greenopia, Sierra Club, and the Better World Handbook. While Greenopia's list is the most up-to-date, it includes both the ubiquitous "supermajor" oil companies (like ExxonMobil and Chevron) and smaller refiners whose gas stations might be harder to find. To simplify things, let's separate out the big and the small, and focus on the two metrics that should be first in your mind when you're about to fill up your tank: the amount of oil spilled by each company and the amount of CO2 emitted per barrel of production.

The numbers for oil spills alone are somewhat dismaying. Though it's been 20 years since the Exxon's Valdez tragedy, the six supermajors continue to pollute the environment at an alarming rate. Some 32 million liters of oil were inadvertently released on land and in sea in 2008, the last year for which numbers are available. A large fraction of that oil was cleaned up as quickly as possible, but it doesn't take long for pollution to mat down bird feathers or seep into freshwater supplies. In that year, just three companies—ConocoPhillips, Total, and Royal Dutch Shell—accounted for 71 percent of the total. (The trio didn't perform much better in 2006 or 2007, either.) Until its recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the most responsible company over the past three years has been BP. In light of the mess threatening the Gulf Coast, the Lantern will go with Chevron—and we'll keep an eye on how BP handles the cleanup effort.

What about carbon emissions? The big oil companies have made some strides in reducing their impacts. Some have tried to limit "flaring"—the burning of excess gases or liquids, which contributes up to 30 percent of their annual carbon emissions. Others are powering some of their plants with renewable energy and investing in things like algae-based biofuel. For all that, Exxon and Conoco still emit the equivalent of more than 92 kilograms of CO2 for every barrel of oil they produce. Shell and Chevron aren't much better. BP was significantly more efficient than its supermajor competitors, generating just 44 kilograms of carbon dioxide per barrel. *

It shouldn't be a surprise that BP performs so well in this last comparison. In 1997, the company became the first of its kind to admit to the risks posed by climate change and renounced its membership in the industry-funded, anti-regulation Global Climate Coalition. Since then, BP has managed to get its emissions below 1990 levels and, despite major cuts to its Alternative Energy division last year, the company still appears on-track to meet its goal of investing $8 billion in solar, wind, and alternative fuels by 2015. It also scored a 90, out of 100, on the Climate Change Corporate Governance checklist developed by the Ceres sustainable business network. (Royal Dutch Shell wasn't far behind, but ExxonMobil got a failing grade of 35.) Of course, all these good deeds may come to naught if BP's Gulf Coast gaffe permanently fouls the Louisiana coastline.

So by all means use the information presented above if you're choosing among the big players by carbon emissions. One of the smaller gas-station owners may turn out to be a more eco-friendly choice, however. Figuring out how to discriminate among the little guys poses its own problems. Take Philadelphia-based Sunoco, which has gotten high marks from Greenopia, Better World, and the Sierra Club. It's the only oil company to sign onto the Ceres principles, which include protection of the biosphere, reduction of waste, and audited environmental reporting. But those environmental bona fides shouldn't distract us from less-direct impacts. Like many small oil companies, Sunoco doesn't do any actual drilling itself. The company refines crude to produce fuel and other oil-derived products like plastic, but it relies on others to extract the stuff from the Earth. Last year, Sunoco purchased 26 percent of its 300 million barrels of crude from Nigeria, where the drilling industry is known for pollution and human rights abuses.

New York-based Hess may be a better choice than Sunoco or BP. Its numbers on oil spills and greenhouse gas emissions are the best in the business, and Forbes magazine ranked the company as one of the 100 most trustworthy traded on U.S. exchanges. Hess may not be looking to sell alternative fuels, but it aims to power 10 percent of its own operations from renewable sources and has plans to reduce flaring in Algeria and Equatorial Guinea by 50 percent over the next five years.

Whichever set of rankings you use, it's important to remember one thing: The road trip that's best for the planet is the one with the fewest unnecessary detours. You may be tempted to drive some extra miles to fill up at Hess, but don't stray too far out of your way, or all the benefits will be negated.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, May 18, 2010: The article originally used a nearly incomprehensible comparison of the number of metric tons of CO2-equivalent emitted by each oil company per year for each barrel of oil that company produced per day. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Brendan Borrell is correspondent for the Scientist and has written about wildlife for Smithsonian and Natural History. His e-mail address is bborrell@hotmail.com.