The gas station is the oil companies’ tentacle into the cars and pocketbooks of consumers. Located at prominent street corners in nearly every neighborhood in the developed world, gas stations proudly carry the flag of Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil giants into our communities. The gas station would therefore appear to be an ideal stage for educating consumers about carbon pollution and its role in fomenting climate change, and for generating friction in the normally smooth transfer of carbon from the oil company to the gasoline consumer.
Despite their potential for education and advocacy, gas stations have rarely been utilized as a platform for protest, advocacy, or carbon education. Rather, with rare exception, they function quietly and efficiently as the oil companies’ community-based carbon spigot, their latent political, economic, and social significance cloaked by the numbing routine of pumping gas.
Since the oil price shocks of the 1970s, most gas stations protests have been about the price of gasoline, most recently with the price spikes of 2008 and 2011.
Recent protests have focused more narrowly on oil company malfeasance. On Earth Day 2010, activists in Oakland protested at a Valero station in connection with the company’s opposition to climate legislation. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout caused a brief flurry of protests against BP across the country.
In 2014, the pace and variety of gas station protests increased. In January, protesters in Manchester, England demonstrated against fracking outside a Total station. In August, 2014 a small group secretly disabled pumps at two Chevron stations in Vancouver, BC protesting Chevron’s actions in Ecuador and the construction of a nearby Chevron oil pipeline.
Greenpeace organized demonstrations at Shell stations in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile in August 2014 in connection with Shell’s Arctic drilling. These protests, coordinated with an effective video mocking Shell’s actions in the Arctic, leveraged Lego’s product tie-in with Shell to create strong visuals and international news about the protest, and ultimately caused Lego to cancel its 50-year relationship with Shell.
Gas station protests draw substantial media coverage because of gas stations’ political and economic importance in the community. Their ubiquity and prominence render them an ideal platform for climate advocacy and protest. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to picketing of abortion clinics provide robust rights to sidewalk protesters.
Coordinated, consistent, fun, well-organized, and friendly actions at gas stations could effectively challenge a broadly-accepted yet ultimately untenable aspect of American life—filling one’s gas tank at the local gas station. They would likely attract significant media attention, put the oil companies on the defensive, and help generate vigorous debate about personal and corporate responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.