‘Greener’ Gas: Where Should We Fuel Up?

Washingtonians live in an environmentally friendly city. New buildings meet green standards, transit ridership is very high, residents use a mix of renewable energy and recycling to increase sustainability. Locals, who value their health and the environment, shop at bustling organic grocery stores and farmers markets. D.C. residents are leaders in “green” living.

They are also horrified by the ongoing oil spill that has shattered lives and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama and environmental leaders have embraced this leadership moment, calling for an end to foreign (or all) oil dependence in as few as two decades — a reversal of a 15-year trend of more driving, flat fuel economy, higher greenhouse gas emissions, and more complicated and risky oil extraction. Local residents must also channel their outrage into better choices for our planet.

In the short term, Washingtonians can reduce their carbon footprint by carpooling or grouping errands by location. In the long term, they can choose to live in walkable communities or buy more energy-efficient cars. When they fill their gas tanks, they must not decide, as usual, on the cheapest or closest option. Instead, they must select an oil company based on its environmental, employee, and regional impact. They must also disregard oil company “greenwashing” efforts, such as BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, which overhyped small renewable energy efforts, and Shell ads showing a pristine marine sanctuary supported through only a few thousand dollars.

A wealth of truly relevant public information on environmental, safety, lobbying, and spill records can help consumers pick a pump. There are some excellent sources:

– One of the most comprehensive is the Sierra Club’s 2007 article called “Pick Your Poison,” which records human rights or environmental abuses, companies’ stances on global warming and green initiatives. The information is shocking — it details huge pipeline and tanker spills, murdered activists, large fines and contaminated water. It also ranks the oil companies on their environmental impact, with Sunoco coming in first (“Top of the Barrel”); Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Valero Energy Company, and Citgo next (“Middle of the Barrel”); then ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (“Bottom of the Barrel”); and BP (dishonorable mention, as of 2010).

– Federal government records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Minerals Management Service, and the Coast Guard forecast and track the impact of oil company activities. Consumers generally can’t easily search these Web sites and compare companies. But a handful of nonprofits are doing the dirty work. For example, a Center for Public Integrity study showed two BP refineries of the 55 that are now federally inspected accounted for almost all (97 percent) of the past three years’ flagrant workplace violations.

– Community stakeholders and environmental groups communicate on the Web about local issues with oil extraction, processing, and transportation at sites such as www.chevrontoxico.com and www.oilwatchdog.org.

Sorting through this information will likely become even easier. Web and iPhone applications that point consumers to the cheapest and/or closest gas stations are being released to give consumers access to this information. These apps might also have consumers check priorities — such safety records over renewable energy initiatives — and push out rankings or more information.

Washington area residents care about the environment, but still drive an average of around 22 miles per day. They must think twice before they fuel up. Local drivers must read through available oil company information and stay up to date on Web and phone applications. It’s one of many critical ways to care for people, pelicans (other wildlife too!) and our planet.

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