The Futility of Boycotting BP

If you aren't appalled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, then either you haven't been paying attention or you hate the environment. Even most people who don't carry around a copy of Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," in their satchel find the situation downright awful. Some think the answer is to make BP pay for its sins through a boycott. But would it really help?

Sharon Begley has a fantastic piece over at explaining the futility of a BP boycott. She explains how all oil companies have a dark side. She starts with Exxon:

Drive right on by the BP station and pull up to the pumps from Exxon, the company responsible for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and, more recently, one of the biggest corporate funders of the movement to tar the science of climate change. Exxon also managed to reduce the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by an Anchorage jury for the Valdez disaster to $507.5 million; the Valdezfishermen and other victims have still not been made whole.

She then methodically moves through the misdeeds of Texaco/Chevron, Citgo, and Shell. To be fair, BP's terrible safety record with 760 Occupational Safety Health Administration (OHSA) fines, compared to Exxon's one fine probably means that BP is a worse abuser. But the point Begley is trying to make still holds up: the only way to really ensure environmental safety is to boycott oil entirely.

But it doesn't even end there. So you buy a plug-in electric car. But that energy you're charging it with could come from a power plant burning natural gas. And, oh wait -- according to BP's website:

Today, natural gas makes up more than half of BP's energy production, making us the largest producer and supplier in the U.S.

In fact, the metro busses here in DC run on natural gas, so perhaps public transportation is out of the question as well. That leaves your bicycle and feet. An inconvenient truth, indeed.

But even if these companies did try as hard as they possibly could to respect the environment, act responsibly, etc. it wouldn't be enough. In the real world, no matter how careful you are, accidents happen. There's always the possibility of human error, and sometimes even machines and computers malfunction. So long as an ecological disaster is possible, no matter how improbable, you have to be comfortable with the fact that it could happen.

That's not to say that BP (and probably others) shouldn't have done a better job in identifying more effective disaster containment. It just means that if we want to live in a world where we consume energy and resources in the way we do, we must accept the possibility that, from time to time, things go very badly. We certainly don't have to like it, but we can't pretend that boycotting one company will change very much.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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