Saylor Company Logo

Few BP Stations Suffer Spill Backlash

By Marla Matzer Rose, The Columbus Dispatch, May 22, 2010

Video of oil-soaked birds and spoiled Alaskan coastlines prompted widespread protests when the Exxon Valdez was making headlines decades ago.

The response to BP's Gulf oil spill so far hasn't been as strong.

No question, plenty of people are unhappy - Otterbein University professor Carmen Galarce among them.

"I used to go regularly to BP because the station is very handy from where I live. Not anymore," said Galarce, a professor of foreign languages who says she's deeply concerned about the environmental impact ."I think the public should express the outrage in some way."

But the level of rancor hasn't reached that of 1989, when Exxon was a dirty word to many.

"I haven't heard or seen anything at all" about a significant boycott against BP, said Keith Reid, editor-in-chief of trade publication NPN, formerly National Petroleum News. "I guess whether that continues depends on how BP handles it. It's still so early in the process."

Even if they want to boycott BP, consumers may find it hard to pinpoint the culprit as BP. Other oil companies supply many third-party gas stations, and BP-branded stations are no longer owned by the British company.

The Sierra Club has organized "solidarity events," including a small gathering recently where people protested at a Cincinnati BP station. An organizer called the event mostly symbolic.

"It wasn't the specific gas station we were picketing against. It was the overall fact that we need to move beyond these dirty sources of energy," said MacKenzie Bailey, associate regional representative for the Sierra Club in Columbus.

BP got out of the retail business years ago to focus on oil production and wholesaling. Most local BP stations are owned by Englefield Oil, based in Heath.

"I think, for the most part, our customers realize we're not BP," said company President Ben Englefield, who hasn't heard of complaints at his stores.

"We're an Ohio family company, and we employ a lot of people in Ohio. I think BP is very safety-oriented and is more sorry than anyone that this happened, but that's not something we have anything to do with or any control over."

The larger potential damage, though, could be in terms of public and government relations that are at the heart of the company's ability to do business.

Already, at least one shareholder lawsuit has been filed. The suit, filed this week in Alaska, alleges that "gross mismanagement" by BP officials led to the "public relations crisis," causing damage to the company's reputation and value.

The ripples of the spill have not begun to be felt, one observer says.

"I think that this will turn out to be a bigger thing (than the Valdez spill) and will be perceived that way," said Mark Saylor, president of public-relations company Saylor Co., based in Los Angeles. "Initially, very early on, I thought from a PR response perspective that I'd give them a positive grade. ... Now, I think they're steadily losing credibility."

Industry observers say there's no evidence at this point that BP stations are suffering a loss of business. But Saylor said that may be the least of BP's worries.

"This is a company that lives or dies by its ability to produce and get access to oil. A lot of those details require them to make agreements with the government and to get public support. This is going to make that harder not just for BP, but for the entire industry."

That's not what's on the mind of Charlie Hooker, a Northwest Side salesman.

He shot off an impassioned e-mail to friends and associates this week, urging them to boycott BP and expressing anger at how the company and the government have handled the spill.

"I'm 60, and we won't recover from this disaster in my lifetime if that oil gets spread by the tides and the hurricane season coming up," Hooker said.