Dear Umbra,

Every week I scan the gasoline signs looking for the cheapest deal, while knowing that what I pay in rock-bottom prices may come at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice. I’d like to choose my brand of gas with more conscience. Would you help? I’d love to see a ranking or rating system of the major gasoline brands. It could let us know which ones are meaningfully pursuing renewable energy sources, protecting indigenous political and property rights at the source, and making efforts to minimize the environmental impact of their oil extraction and refinement. Are any companies doing these things? Surely there are qualitative differences between them.

I remember Shell had a pretty bad track record in Nigeria, while BP has begun redeeming itself by acknowledging the impact of carbon dioxide on global warming and investing in renewable sources — but what’s really going on with them, and what’s the skinny on the rest? I’d love your advice!

Hanna
Austin, Texas

Dearest Hanna,

Did you receive a round of emails about “Don’t Buy Gas Day” earlier this year? I got a few mass notes from otherwise politically enlightened friends advocating the eschewal of petroleum purchases on a specific date. The point was ostensibly to show indignation at the price of gasoline, but I thought the emails themselves illustrated a larger conundrum in which the senders were entangled.

How green is my gas pump?

First, U.S. gas prices are low compared to those in the rest of the world. Second, our purposes as environmentalists are best served when gas prices climb and rumors of worldwide oil depletion hit the mainstream press. I’m sure that I’ve heard moaning about our overreliance on the automobile from the very people who wanted to stick it to the gas pricers.

Regarding your actual question, which is huge, let me hook you up with my fellow researchers over at the Better World Handbook, who have compiled an indexed ranking of the relative social responsibility of gas companies. As of 2001, Sunoco placed first and ExxonMobil last. An online chart summarizes all the factors that were considered in establishing the rankings and provides brief details about each company. For example: Under ChevronTexaco, second to last, you will find, among other factoids, that it is “responsible for the most Superfund sites.” (On the other hand, it is one of the few oil companies to disclose its greenhouse gas emissions.) To get details, punch the company name into Co-op America’s Responsible Shopper search field and you will be taken to an essay version of the Better World rankings.

One more thing — in case I ever abandon this column gig to play tight end for the Rams — download Co-op America’s Guide to Researching Corporations [PDF]. If ever you wish to do your own detailed research on any topic that’s got you riled up, the guide will be your … guide.

Righteously,
Umbra