Andreas Späth

Who’s better than BP?

2010-06-23 07:50

My friends keep nagging me: “Now that I’m boycotting BP because of the oil spill, where should I buy my petrol?” Why they ask for my advice is beyond me. They must know by now that I’m the biggest cynic when it comes to questions about multinational companies and their environmental records.

“Makes no difference. They’re all equally bad!” is my standard answer.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant. The disgusting mess BP has created in the Mexican Gulf has left motorists with a conscience in a quandary. So which service station do you pull into when your petrol gauge hits empty these days?


Bad choice! Chevron - aka Caltex - is embroiled in one of the largest environmental lawsuits in history for turning a remote region of the Amazon into a “Rainforest Chernobyl” that has been described as the worst oil-related disaster ever.

Texaco, a company that merged with Chevron in 2001, extracted oil in northern Ecuador for nearly three decades and when they got out in the 1990s, they left behind over 900 open pits leaking toxic petroleum pollutants into groundwater and rivers used for drinking, cooking and sanitation by the local population. They’d also dumped billions of litres of toxic “formation waters”, a by-product of the oil drilling process, into local streams.

The result: widespread contamination of soil, air and water, increased rates of cancers, birth defects, respiratory diseases and miscarriages, and the destruction of the traditional way of life of the indigenous population. According to an independent expert appointed by an Ecuadorian court, the company is liable for damages to the tune of $27bn.


Local isn’t always lekker. I’m told that it’s neither fair nor relevant to mention that the process which Sasol uses to convert coal into oil is Nazi technology adopted by Apartheid South Africa. It is pertinent, however, that it produces large amounts of CO2. Sasol spews out over 70 million tons of the greenhouse gas annually and its plant at Secuda is notorious for being the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.


The French oil major was responsible for what is considered the country’s worst environmental disaster when crude from a sinking tanker resulted in a 400-kilometre-long oil slick along the coast of Brittany in 1999. Total is also being investigated for bribing Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein to secure oil supplies and it’s currently being sued for condoning the use of slave labour in the construction of a pipeline it operates in Myanmar despite EU sanctions against the military dictatorship there.


Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni compatriots! Sure, Royal Dutch/Shell didn’t exactly put the noose around their necks, but as the biggest oil player in the Niger Delta, the company was complicit in the state-sanctioned murder of the activists who spoke out against the exploitation of their people and homeland.

Shell began drilling in Ogoniland in 1958. Today, the countryside is dissected by pipelines, the air, soil and water are polluted, the locals are suffering from abnormally high levels of cancer, asthma and other diseases and their fisheries and livelihoods are severely degraded. The flaring of natural gas in Nigerian oil fields is responsible for more global warming than that from the rest of the world’s oil fields combined. An estimated 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the delta - equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster every year for the last 40 years. Shell has been accused of causing an average of five 16 000-litre oil spills every week.


And we have a winner. Engen is a subsidiary of the Malaysian national oil company Petronas and while they’re responsible for some comparatively minor spills, they haven’t been reported for any major disasters. Yet. So at this stage Engen might just be your most ethical choice when it comes to filling up your tank.

I retain my right to be cynical, though. The petroleum business is dirty and so are the organisations that run it. All we can do is choose the least tainted company in a thoroughly rotten bunch. What we really need is a way of living that doesn’t depend on oil in the first place.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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