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Q. Dear Umbra,

Although I am trying to drive down my usage, I still buy gasoline to put in my car. Every time I pull up to the BP station, I cringe at the destruction their firm wrought in the Gulf. I wonder if there is any benefit to taking my dollars elsewhere. Is there a lesser evil among gas stations out there?

Jennifer R.
Chicago, Ill.

bad gas
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A. Dearest Jennifer,

Loyal readers might see this first bit of advice coming down the pike: Drive less. From your opening line, I gather you have been trying to do just that, to which I say huzzah!

After years of chanting this mantra, it warms my heart to see that many Americans are driving less (though the underlying economic reasons do make one glum). But I also understand, thanks in part to reminders from my dearest readers, that many of us must drive: to work, or to school, or to buy food. Maybe we live in a rural area or an area with lousy public transportation. I get it. But I will say it again, to everyone: Bundle your errands. Carpool. Walk or bike if you can. Telecommute if possible. Never mind about the planet, do it to save money and get exercise! That planetary stuff is just an added bonus.

When you do have to drive, which gas station is best? Before I spill the answer, let me point out that winning the gas-station battle is akin to winning an award for, say, being the nicest bully on the block. This is not exactly a gold-star moment. That said, the apparent frontrunner is (drumroll, please): Sunoco.

Sunoco, which operates in about half the country, has nabbed top honors in three rankings, by the Sierra Club in 2007, Green America in 2010, and Greenopia in 2011. These groups have noted the company’s relatively forward stance on climate; its adherence to the CERES principles, a sort of code of environmental conduct for corporations; and its energy conservation efforts. But the fact that it won the Green America list by scoring a “D” in the Environment category speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I encourage anyone out there who is interested in being a Thoughtful Gas Consumer to peruse these lists. You will learn a tankful about the ills, spills, and intentions of the major brands.

If the major brands are filthy messes, should you fill ’er up somewhere else? What about Costco, which is becoming the most popular gas station in the country? Or Harry’s Pump ‘n’ Save down the street? Although it might seem like a friendly alternative, such “generic” gas comes from the same refineries as name-brand gas. Sometimes the fuel is treated differently on the way to the station — companies add different detergents and so forth. But no matter where you pump, you are still buying the same gas. Which comes from oil. Which comes from the depths of some of our most astonishing places: Deserts. Oceans. Arctic tundra.

People, we are destroying these places to fuel our gadabout lifestyles. When we drive, our cars belch fumes that make our air dirty and make us sick. These fumes also help trap warm air in our atmosphere, which is changing the way our planet functions. This driving, it is bad news.

Here I am sermonizing, Jennifer, and you just want to know where to buy gas. General wisdom after the BP spill was that boycotting BP stations did more harm to the little guy than to the mucky-mucks, because the stations are locally owned. So you could keep visiting BP with the cold comfort that you are “buying local.” (Of course, since the “little guy” has allied his fortunes with a giant, planet-destroying corporation, that argument carries only so much weight.) There are no Sunocos in Illinois, but you could consult the lists above and switch to a different brand, with the understanding that they are all terrible. You could also look into buying a cargo bike or an electric car (Chicago seems to be trying to make itself a hub for charging stations). Or you could — and I’m just spitballing here — keep trying to drive less. A thousand huzzahs in advance to you!

Seriously,
Umbra