Gulf oil spill yet to affect consumers' gas choice

Motorists steadily fill up at BP's environmentally correct showcase gas station in Los Angeles even as the company's crude oil stains 2,000 square miles of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

The scene is the same at stations selling BP gas across the country, with no apparent sign of a consumer backlash at the pump like the boycott triggered by the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago.

"It's really bad, but they're taking responsibility," cab driver Edwin Cueva, 53, reasoned as he filled his tank Monday at a downtown Chicago BP station. "Accidents do happen."

Gassing up in Erlanger, Ky., 40-year-old Lee Pullins of Springfield, Ohio, said the spill is "absolutely horrible" but will not affect where he buys fuel.

"I go where it's the least expensive, even if it's only two pennies cheaper," he said.

Some of those working behind station counters have been worrying about consumer reaction, but owners interviewed by The Associated Press across the country say it's been business as usual since the April 20 explosion on a rig off Louisiana began unleashing 200,000 gallons of crude a day.

"I haven't noticed anything yet," said Jeff Dolch, a BP station owner in Baltimore. "But if (the spill) hits hard and the news starts showing pictures of animals, at that point it may start to happen."

That may be why motorists still seem more interested in price and convenience than in Twitter and Facebook buzz about a boycott: So far, oil has not impacted the Gulf coast in the dramatic way Alaskan shores were fouled in 1989 when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons.

"This concept, whether it will end up to be of significant size or not, is now being formed in consumers' minds," said Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the petroleum marketing monitor Lundberg Survey.

With images of dead or dirtied birds, fish, seals and otters, the Exxon Valdez disaster triggered protest rallies, and consumers returned some 10,000 of Exxon's 7 million credit cards to the company.

But it still took 40 days for outrage to coalesce into a one-day national boycott of Exxon stations.

"The boycott concept at that time took a while to kick in and was fanned passionately by some radio folks including regular deejays around the country," Lundberg said.

The boycott itself was controversial because only a small percentage of stations selling the Exxon brand were owned by the company. Independent operators argued they were also victims of the spill.

"It did not catch fire and become a nationwide attack on Exxon sales," Lundberg said. "It was to a degree hurtful for some retailers and a little bit hurtful for all, but it was more hurtful in the psyche of the business from explorationists down to the franchisees. They truly seemed to be in mourning."

Exxon said at the time that it had no reports of a loss of volume of gasoline sales due to either the boycott or the campaign against its credit card.

A BP boycott potentially could have a big impact based on its share of the U.S. gasoline market, second only to Shell. But customers in some states may not be aware they are buying BP gas.

The BP name has a low profile in the West, where the company sells gas under the long-established Arco brand well known for low prices and cash- or debit-only transactions. That has put Arco neck-and-neck with Chevron at just over 20 percent of the huge California market, Lundberg said.

Even BP's "Helios House," the shiny steel Los Angeles gas station made from recycled materials and equipped with eco-friendly systems, operates as Arco. The parent company's green-and-yellow sunburst "helios" logo and the phrase "A part of BP" are in small letters at the bottom of Arco signs.

On Monday, it sold regular gas for $3.06 a gallon, the same as the Exxon station across the street. Other stations within a few minutes drive had prices as low as $3.01 and as high as $3.25.

BP spokesman David Nicholas said the company hasn't told gas stations to cut prices. He said he doesn't know if BP-branded stations had done so on their own. "But I'd find that highly surprising," he said.

In interviews across the nation, BP customers were often pragmatic and some owners expressed surprise that customers hadn't mentioned the Gulf accident.

"I am worried about the spill, and I think they should have done more to prevent it and find a way to fix it faster," said college student Stephanie Purnell, 20, as she bought gas in Crescent Springs, Ky. "If I didn't have to go for the cheapest price, I might not have come back to BP."

Construction worker Bob O'Brien, gassing up a big pickup in South Philadelphia, said he believes big oil companies all operate in the same way.

"It doesn't make sense to boycott one company because this spill could have happened with any of the other ones," he said.

At the same station, retiree Carmen Espinosa, 68, doubted the effectiveness of a consumer action.

"It's a negative way to think, but there'd never be a boycott big enough for it to make any impact," she said. "People need gas, they'll go to wherever is cheap or convenient, not burn more gas by driving around looking for another place to go."

Pavin Chittiwuttinon, a 7-Eleven franchisee who sells BP-branded gas in a pricey south Baltimore neighborhood, said he expected to catch some flak from customers about the spill, but hasn't so far.

"That surprises me, with the demographic we're in - more educated, more well-off people," he said. "It hasn't been brought up at all."

AP Energy Writer Chris Kahn and Associated Press writers Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, Emery Dalesio in Raleigh, N.C., Page Ivey in Columbia, S.C., JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia, Ben Nuckols in Baltimore and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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