Saturday, January 8, 2011

Petroleum- Pick Your Poison

I started week one of my ethical shopping challenge rearing and ready to go! However, on day four I faced a road block, and the ethical shopping challenge started to become much more difficult than I had anticipated, for the simple fact that I need to drive to work. And in order to drive, my car requires the age old evil... petroleum.
Now let me begin by explaining that I am well aware that it is more environmentally to take public transport or ride a bike to work. However, I live 55.5 km away from the office in which I work. It would literally take me a number of days to ride to work, and I doubt I would even make it without passing out!  I have extensively researched the public transport route, which unfortunately would involve two trains and a bus, totalling three hours in travel one way. Maybe it is selfish, but I just can’t afford to spend six hours a day travelling to and from work!
In order to mitigate my impact on the environment, I have been carpooling to work for over three years which is saving at least one other car per day from being on the road, and in addition, I have an arrangement in which I work three days in the office and two days from home.  However, these actions do not entirely solve my problem- I still require petrol in my tank to get to where I need to be at least three days of the week!
We all know the environmental impacts of using petrol in our vehicles, and we have seen the social and environmental impacts of oil spills on television, but further research has lead me to some disturbing facts about the petroleum industry;
  • 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 against the company's Nigerian operations (Ives & Boyd, 2007).
  • Exxon Mobil's pipeline project from Chad in West Africa 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 (Ives & Boyd, 2007).
  • BP heads a coalition of oil and gas companies throughout Europe and are 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 (Ives & Boyd, 2007).
In looking at alternative options to oil, biofuels are often marketed as a sustainable option, however according to Oxfam, the impacts of biofuels are often disastrous for people in the developing world. Why? Because Biofuels are made using food crops which in turn pushes up the price of food in developing nations. Oxfam calculates that rich country biofuel policies have dragged more than 30 million people into poverty, according to evidence that biofuels have already contributed up to 30% to the global rise in food prices.

            “Biofuel policies are actually helping to accelerate climate change and deepen poverty and hunger. Rich countries’ demands for more biofuels in their transport fuels are causing spiralling production and food inflation”- Oxfam’s biofuel policy adviser Rob Bailey
(Oxfam International, 2008)
But the fact still remains- I need to drive my car to keep my job and my social life going, so is there any ethical choice when it comes to fuel?
According to a well researched review of oil companies in the USA, called ‘Pick Your Poison : An updated environmentalist's guide to gasoline’ (Ives & Boyd, 2007), oil companies can be rated in the following order:
Top of the Barrel

Middle of the Barrel
Royal Dutch Shell
Valero Energy Corporation

Bottom of the Barrel
ExxonMobil (Mobil, Fuel Zone)ConocoPhillips

Dishonorable Mention

Furthermore, another consumer watchdog source, The Ethical Consumer's Ethiscore has ranked oil companies in the UK from best (#1) to worst ( #9)
1. Murco
2. Jet
3. Elf
4. Shell
5. Total
6. BP
7. Texaco
8. Esso
9. Mobil
(Petrol & Diesel, Ethical Consumer,2011)
According to the above reviews, in the Australia market, Shell would be classified as the most ethical, followed by Caltex, who are owned by Chevron, then BP and lastly Mobil.
So while I am not going to advocate for Shell by any means, when I need to buy fuel for my car I will purchase from Shell. In the mean time, I will continue to car pool, try to use public transport or walk when possible and when the time comes for me to purchase a new car, I will purchase a more sustainable option such as a car that runs on biodiesel, which is produced using waste cooking oil.
According to Biodiesel Producers, replacing petroleum derived diesel fuel with biodiesel offers these advantages:
·         It can be used in most diesel equipment with no modifications or, in some instances, only minor modifications.
·         It reduces global warming gas emissions.
·         It reduces tailpipe emissions, particularly the toxic components.
·         It is essentially free of sulphur, so the emissions do not contribute to acid rain.
·         It is non-toxic, biodegradable, and suitable for sensitive environments.
·         It has a higher flashpoint, so it is safer to store and transport.
(Biodiesel, 2008)

So in conclusion, in order for me to be ethical in my fuel choice, I will need to purchase a new car that can run off biodiesel, which I currently cannot afford. In the mean time I will ‘pick my poison’ and relunctantly purchase from Shell.

Ethical Consumer. (2011). Petrol & Diesel. Retrieved 11 January 2011 from
Ives, S. & Boyd, R. (2007). Pick Your Poison : An updated environmentalist's guide to gasoline. Retrieved 8 January 2011 from

Oxfam International. (2008). Another Inconvenient Truth: Biofuels are not the answer to climate or fuel crisis. Retrieved 8 January 2011 from

Biodiesel Producers. (2008). Why Biodiesel. Retrieved 8th January 2011 from


  1. Wow, great research, Thx! So nice to have someone translate for the Australian context!

    So does biodiesel fuel work in any diesel engine?


  2. Hi Barber_q,

    Yes, according to my research biodiesle does work in any diesle engine. Good news!

    The European biofuel market is much larger than the Aussie one but as a start here are some suppliers:

    -RetailersSAFF - South Australian Farmers Fuel (SAFF) began retailing B100 in South Australia in 2001 and now also sells B20 (marketed as "Premium Diesel") at some 52 service stations across 4 states. SAFF currently sells B100 at 14 of these service stations.

    -Gull - a Western Australian based company, introduced B20 Biodiesel to several Gull service stations on April 3, 2006 which has since expanded to a total of 21 sites of purchase. In addition, pure Biodiesel (B100) along with other blends can be purchased in bulk. Gull was the second rollout, after SAFF, of Biodiesel by a service station network. Gull is also involved with the Western Australian Government to provide B5 Biodiesel for use in Transperth buses. Eventually the fleet will be provided with B10 or B20 blends. Currently seven percent of Transperth's bus fleet is running Biodiesel.

    -reeFUEL - a retailer in Townsville, Queensland. reeFUEL sells only B100 and as of September 2006, was selling 50,000 litres per week into a community of about 160,000. This is believed to be the highest penetration of biodiesel per capita in Australia.

    -Conservo - a small biodiesel retail outlet in Melbourne's inner suburbs, looking to expand to other locations within Melbourne's suburbs.

    Alternatively you could make your own!


  3. I am in the process of the same research. I have read the same reports and have concluded that it is a case of pick your evil. I must disagree with the conclusions above. BP have the best environmental policy and invest significantly in renewable energy. Shell/Chevron have been involved in human rights disasters in Africa/South America/Indonesia according to research. This includes supporting military groups who have committed crimes against humanity in return for protection of their oil rights/profits (according to numerous reports and documentaries). I cannot support any such actions and as a result my choice of evils is BP. I note that exxon/mobil do not get a second thought (It seems widely agreed that they are terrible).

    Hence, I will go BP where I can.

    I would conclude with a caution of relying on any report, oil companies from what I can tell are pretty much evil, I suggest researching those evils thoroughly and choose the one you disagree with least and the company's actions to countenance those evils.

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