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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2007
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Pick Your Poison
An updated environmentalist's guide to gasoline
by Sarah Ives and Robynne Boyd
January/February 2007

{Editor's Note} In the September/October 2001 issue, Sierra published "Pick Your Poison: An Environmentalist's Guide to Gasoline," by Jennifer Hattam and Paul Rauber, in which we tallied the pluses and minuses of the largest U.S. oil companies. Since then, continued consolidation in the industry has further shrunk the field, and new oil spills and pollution releases have blackened some carefully green-washed reputations.

These companies are among the largest and most powerful enterprises on the planet. The complexity of their organization and activities, the vastness of their reach, and the huge number of variables involved make objective ranking difficult. That said, it is possible to lump them into three general categories, as Sierra editorial interns Robynne Boyd and Sarah Ives do below: the "bottom of the barrel" (ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips), the "middle of the barrel" (Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Valero Energy Corporation, and Citgo), and the "top of the barrel" (BP and Sunoco). But you don't have to take our word for it: Review the information we've gathered, and make your own choice. --Paul Rauber, senior editor

In the United States, drivers consume nearly 400 million gallons of gasoline per day. Many of them are committed environmentalists who are well aware of the true cost of fossil fuel. They drive fuel-efficient cars and carpool but wonder if they could also send a message through where they choose to buy their gas. Sierra reviewed the records of the eight largest U.S. oil companies, and here's what we found:

Top of the Barrel
Sunoco

Middle of the Barrel
Royal Dutch Shell
Chevron
Valero Energy Corporation
Citgo

Bottom of the Barrel
ExxonMobil
ConocoPhillips

Dishonorable Mention
BP


Top of the Barrel

Sunoco

This Philadelphia-based company operates 4,700 U.S. service stations through its Sunoco, Ultra Service Centers, and APlus convenience-store brands. Smaller than some of the other oil companies, Sunoco made about $34 billion in sales in 2005.

Black Marks

  • In 2000, a Sunoco pipeline spilled almost 200,000 gallons of oil into the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge near Philadelphia. In 2005, Sunoco reached a settlement with the EPA and agreed to pay a $2.7 million fine.

  • In 2005, Sunoco paid more than $8 million in fines and penalties, which included two violations of the Pennsylvania Title V permit emission cap from 2001 to 2004 at the Marcus Hook Refinery, and a disagreement over Sunoco's compliance with the Reasonably Available Control Technology regulations. The RACT process determines and requires the use of available control mechanisms to reduce or limit air emissions.

Stance on Global Warming

  • Sunoco has publicly acknowledged the human role in global climate change and is a member of the Pew Center's Business Environmental Leadership Council.

Green Initiatives

  • Due to energy-conservation efforts, net energy use by the company decreased by almost 12 percent between 1990 and 2005.

  • As Sierra reported in 2001, Sunoco is the only oil company to sign the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) principal. As part of this agreement, Sunoco has made all of its environmental activities--both its successes and failures--publicly available.


Middle of the Barrel

Royal Dutch Shell

Royal Dutch Shell is the third-largest oil and gasoline company worldwide. The Netherlands-based company operates more than 13,000 service stations in the United States under its Shell brand. The company's 2005 sales reached more than $300 billion.

Black Marks

  • Shell has been condemned by many organizations, including the Sierra Club, for its support of the military government in Nigeria. In 1995, nine Ogoni activists were killed for protesting the company's Nigerian operations. A decade later, the Federal High Court of Nigeria ordered Shell and other oil companies to stop gas flaring, an environmentally destructive practice that exposes Nigerians to dangerous levels of air pollutants.

  • In 2002, California sued Shell, along with other gasoline companies now owned by Chevron and ConocoPhillips, for its use of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) in its products. According to the EPA, MTBE causes both cancerous and noncancerous effects in laboratory animals; the agency issued an MBTE drinking-water advisory in 1997. Shell began phasing out the use of MTBE in California in 2002. However, the company still uses MTBE in some areas internationally.

  • In 2002, Shell and Olympic Pipe Line Company agreed to pay some $100 million in civil and criminal penalties because of their roles in the 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Washington, which killed three people (including two ten-year-old boys).

  • In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the company has been accused of contaminating soil, air, and water and causing health problems in local communities.

Stance on Global Warming

Green Initiatives

  • Shell, along with BP and Chevron, is a member of the Energy and Biodiversity Initiative, which is convened by the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. The initiative seeks to bring together energy companies and conservation organizations to develop guidelines for integrating biodiversity into oil and gas development. Shell also has close links to the World Conservation Union.

  • Shell is the world's leading distributor of biofuels, has hydrogen stations in five countries, and has pledged $1 billion to developing alternative energy since 2000.

Chevron

After merging with Texaco in 2001, Chevron became the second-largest U.S. integrated oil company, with almost $200 billion in annual sales. The company operates about 9,500 service stations in the United States.

Black Marks

  • In 2001, Sierra reported on the deaths of villagers protesting environmental damage by Chevron in the Niger Delta. Three years later, a San Francisco federal court refused Chevron's motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a group of Nigerians who hold the company responsible for the deaths of four other demonstrators at an oil terminal in the delta. The case is ongoing.

  • In 2001, we reported on Texaco's dismal environmental record in the Amazon. Today the $6 billion pollution case against Chevron is reaching its final stages. According to Amazon Watch, the evidence against Chevron is damning. For instance, one soil sample from a Chevron well site inspected by the Ecuadoran court contained toxic substances that exceeded maximum amounts permitted by U.S. law by 3,250 times, and of 252 water samples taken by Chevron, 99 percent had pollutants that exceeded maximum limits allowed under Ecuadoran environmental laws. Chevron denies all charges and disputes the evidence.

  • A 2005 report by Jantzi Research ranked Chevron below average for its social and environmental practices.

  • Chevron faced 577 fines and settlements in 2005, costing $4.3 million. Health and safety violations accounted for 459 of them, which added up to $142,000; the remaining 118--and the majority of the cost--stemmed from environmental issues.

  • According to the Environmental Protection Authority of Western Australia, Chevron's gas project on Barrow Island could negatively impact a nearby nature reserve and turtle-nesting area.

Stance on Global Warming

  • In 2005, Chevron met its goal of no net increase in greenhouse-gas emissions compared with 2004. In 2005, its products emitted 374 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, about 1.5 percent of global emissions, based on estimates by the International Energy Agency.

  • As a member of the Business Roundtable, Chevron opposes mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Green Initiatives

  • In 2004 and 2005, Chevron committed more than $300 million a year to renewable and clean energy projects, including a wind farm in the Netherlands and solar photovoltaic installations in California; Guatemala City; London; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Valero Energy Corporation

Valero Energy is the largest independent oil company in the United States, with $82 billion in annual sales. It operates 5,000 U.S. gas stations through its Corner Store, Diamond Shamrock, Shamrock, Ultramar, Valero, Stop N Go, and Beacon convenience-store brands.

Black Marks

  • As owner of Ultramar Diamond Shamrock, Valero has also acquired its human-rights and environmental violations in Myanmar. As we reported in 2001, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock's activities cut through one of the largest remaining rainforest tracts in mainland Southeast Asia.

  • In 2005, the EPA fined Valero $5.5 million for emissions violations and ordered the company to spend more than $5.5 million on environmentally beneficial projects to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.

  • In 2005, the EPA fined Valero for state and federal hazardous-waste violations at its refinery in Benicia, California. The hazardous waste at the facility includes benzene, benzopyrene, chrysene, lead, and sulfuric acid.

  • Last summer, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection fined Valero for a discharge of oil that left residue on cars, fences, and houses in the state.

Stance on Global Warming

  • Valero has publicly stated uncertainty over the human causes of climate change.

  • Nevertheless, the company is working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by almost 2 million tons annually over the next five years.

Green Initiatives

  • Valero has invested some $2 billion in environmental initiatives, including the production of cleaner-burning fuels.

  • Valero has installed new scrubbers at three of its refineries and is installing them at four more. The company projects that the scrubbers will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at the facilities by more than 90 percent.

Citgo

Citgo, owned by Petroleos de Venezuela S. A. (PDVSA), operates about 13,000 service stations in the United States. In 2004, Citgo made about $32 billion in sales.

Black Marks

  • Citgo paid a $3.6 million settlement in 2004 to the Justice Department for violating the Clean Air Act and spent $320 million to cut air pollution at six of its refineries.

  • In 2004, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that hundreds of birds, turtles, and fish likely died as a result of Citgo's 30,000-gallon oil leak in New Jersey.

  • Last July, Citgo released 47,000 barrels of waste oil from storage tanks into a Louisiana ship channel.

  • In 2006, a federal grand jury in Corpus Christi, Texas, returned a ten-count indictment against Citgo for criminal violations of the Clean Air and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts for emissions.

Stance on Global Warming

  • The Venezuelan government owns PDVSA, Citgo's parent company. Venezuela officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2005 and has criticized the United States for its stance on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Green Initiatives

  • Citgo is a longtime sponsor of the Nature Conservancy.


Bottom of the Barrel

ExxonMobil

The world's largest integrated oil company, ExxonMobil has one of the worst environmental reputations. An economic powerhouse, the company reported more than $370 billion in sales in 2005, an almost 25 percent increase over 2004. ExxonMobil operates between 15,000 and 16,000 service stations in the United States.

Black Marks

  • ExxonMobil has received numerous fines and penalties from the EPA for its environmental violations. International human-rights and environmental organizations from Amnesty International to Greenpeace have called for boycotts in response to the company's stance on climate change and its troubling human-rights history:

  • It's been more than 17 years since the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and ExxonMobil still refuses to pay punitive damages. Although the company has given $2.2 billion to help clean up Prince William Sound, many organizations say that amount is far too little to address lingering environmental problems. In the past decade, ExxonMobil has also been responsible for hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled in Nigeria and New York.

  • In 2001, Sierra reported that ExxonMobil's pipeline project from Chad to the coast of Cameroon cuts through indigenous communities' rainforest homes. Last January, the project generated new controversy when Chad's government diverted money generated from petroleum revenue away from poverty-relief and social programs.

  • In 2002, the Political Economy Research Institute rated ExxonMobil the sixth-worst polluter in the United States based on EPA emissions data.

  • In 2005, the EPA levied an $8.7 million civil penalty on ExxonMobil for its nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions in Illinois, Louisiana, and Montana. According to the EPA, these pollutants can increase the risk of childhood asthma and cause other environmental and health damages. In addition to the penalty, the company will have to spend $9.6 million on environmental programs in communities near the refineries.

  • That same year, ExxonMobil emitted nearly 150 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

  • A 2005 report by Jantzi Research ranked ExxonMobil below average for its social and environmental practices.

  • ExxonMobil has long maintained a close relationship with the Indonesian military, infamous for its human-rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, Indonesian soldiers guarding the company's buildings have tortured and killed civilians.

  • Despite protests from millions of U.S. citizens, ExxonMobil still seeks to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Stance on Global Warming

Green Initiatives

  • In the past decade, ExxonMobil has contributed more than $11 million to the Save the Tiger Fund to support tiger-habitat protection, conservation awareness, and human-wildlife conflict management internationally.

  • In the United States, ExxonMobil supports Ducks Unlimited's conservation efforts in the Gulf region and the Wildlife Habitat Council's work to improve wildlife habitat on corporate, private, and public lands.

ConocoPhillips

Formed from a merger between Conoco and Phillips Petroleum Company in 2002, ConocoPhillips has grown even larger through its $35 billion acquisition of Burlington Resources in 2006. The ever-expanding company sells gasoline at 11,800 U.S. service stations under the brands 76, Conoco, and Phillips 66. In 2005, ConocoPhillips made about $185 billion in sales.

Black Marks

  • In 2002, the Political Economy Research Institute rated ConocoPhillips the third-worst polluter in the United States based on EPA emissions data.

  • In August 2004, the EPA fined ConocoPhillips for Clean Water Act violations at its drilling sites in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The company had violated its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit 470 times over a five-year period.

  • Earlier in 2004, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) had fined ConocoPhillips for Clean Air Act violations at its "hallmark" Alpine oil field. High carbon monoxide emissions from turbines had exceeded permitted air-quality levels. These fines followed a history of Clean Air Act violations at Alpine even before it began production. During development drilling in 1999, ADEC had fined ConocoPhillips for three permit violations for excess emissions. The Alpine oil field began producing in 2000, and by January 2001, ADEC found high emissions of nitrogen oxides.

Stance on Global Warming

  • In 2005, ConocoPhillips released about 54 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Its numbers have remained steady since 2003.

  • As a member of the Business Roundtable (see ExxonMobil example above), ConocoPhillips opposes mandatory caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Green Initiatives

  • In 2005, ConocoPhillips spent $500,000 to launch the Spirit of Conservation Migratory Bird Program, a grant-giving organization dedicated to helping protect birds and their habitats worldwide.

  • ConocoPhillips backs the Nature Conservancy's work to restore tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma.

  • The company maintains a fleet of double-hulled tankers, which helps reduce the risks of oil spills in collisions.


Dishonorable Mention

BP

BP lost all its environmental credibility when its Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, precipitating the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP, the second-largest integrated oil company worldwide, is known for its large holdings in Alaska. The company serves customers at 15,900 U.S. gas stations. In 2005, BP made more than $245 billion in sales.

Black Marks

  • BP's oil refinery in Texas City has been labeled one of the worst polluting plants in the United States. A March 2005 explosion at the facility killed 15 workers and injured more than 100 others. Following the explosion, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found 300 safety and health violations at the refinery. BP faces $21.3 million in OSHA fines.

  • In March 2006, a leak in one of BP's pipelines spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Prior to the spill, the state had levied fines against the company and employees had expressed concerns about the pipeline's safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation is now investigating BP's maintenance practices. (See "Lay of the Land," November/December 2006.) Despite these efforts, the company was responsible for another spill in Alaska last August.

  • BP heads a coalition of oil and gas companies building a pipeline across Azerbaijan, the Republic of Georgia, and Turkey. The project has led to widespread dislocation of local residents. Watchdog groups are concerned about complaints of contaminated water supplies and landslides triggered by pipeline construction.

  • Numerous groups have blasted BP for its investments in Myanmar, Colombia, Venezuela, and Tibet (although in response to pressure from environmental and human-rights groups, BP sold its stake in PetroChina's Tibetan operations).

  • In 2005, lawyers representing thousands of apartheid victims at an appeals hearing in New York revived 2002 compensation claims against foreign multinational corporations, including BP and Shell, that they accuse of aiding and abetting apartheid violence. The plaintiffs argue that the companies supported the apartheid state of South Africa, thus violating the United States' constructive engagement policy to fight discrimination.

Stance on Global Warming

  • In response to the Kyoto Protocol, BP pledged to reduce CO2 emissions from its operations to 10 percent below its 1990s level. The company achieved that goal by 2001.

  • BP supports the Kyoto Protocol to cap greenhouse-gas emissions.

Green Initiatives

  • In 2002, BP withdrew from Arctic Power, an organization lobbying to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. BP no longer participates in the ANWR debate.

  • In 2005, BP announced plans to invest $8 billion over ten years in alternative energy generated from sun, wind, natural gas, and hydrogen.

  • The BP Conservation Programme has provided funds to organizations such as the Crocodile Rehabilitation, Observance, and Conservation Project, a group dedicated to saving Indonesia's rare crocodiles.


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