The onset of cold weather in much of the US traditionally shifts concerns among energy buyers from gasoline prices to home heating bills.
But this year, some of that focus remains on gasoline more specifically, its origins.
Over the past few months, 80 percent of the e-mail messages received by the National Energy Information Center (NEIC) in Washington carried roughly the same subject line: "Oil and terrorism," according to information specialist Susanne Johnson.
Their main query: Where does the gas I buy come from?
Curiosity about the origin of gasoline sold in the US has risen since talk of military action in Iraq heated up, says Ms. Johnson. "We found that customers were just looking for information on Persian Gulf importers," she says.
The spike in interest may be rooted in a grass-roots effort on the part of activists primarily through websites and e-mail campaigns urging consumers to boycott gasoline vendors who import large amounts of oil from the Middle East. These activists argue that such purchases support oppressive regimes, some of which may be sponsoring terrorism.
But the information offered by the activists generally is rife with inaccuracies, say oil industry experts. Moreover, their campaigns oversimplify the issue.
"Because of the way the gasoline trade works, boycotting Middle East oil is not only off base, it's physically impossible," says Michael Economides, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston.
Boycott Watch, a Cleveland organization, began this summer researching the origin of gasoline sold in the US. The group acted after receiving several e-mails that encouraged consumers to tape lists of "approved" gasoline retailers to their cars' dashboards.
But such lists, based in large part on data offered by the NEIC (www.eia.doe.gov), are inadequate guides, says Boycott Watch researcher Fred Taub.
The NEIC designates Shell, for example, as having imported the second-smallest amount of Middle East oil during 2001. Yet the information excludes important corporate ties.
Shell is a major partner of Motiva Enterprises, the largest Middle East oil importer. Shell has also joined with Saudi Arabia in building US refineries.
NEIC data also show that Conoco imported all of its oil from Canada and Latin America. Unknown to many boycotters, however, is the fact that the company recently merged with Phillips Petroleum, which imports a large percentage of its oil from Saudi Arabia.
From the beginning of oil exploration overseas, companies have shared rights to drill oil fields. Many jointly operate refineries and pipelines.
Oil companies not only have corporate ties with each other, they also mix their gasoline.
Companies such as Exxon, which operates many of its own refineries, will often refine petroleum into gasoline that was drilled by another company in another part of the world. Exxon often has its oil refined by another producer that draws most of its oil from, say, Venezuela.
"All the oil gets mixed in the refining process," says Robert Beck, a consulting economist for the Oil and Gas Journal, a trade publication in Houston.
Separate refineries also share pipelines. Mr. Economides estimates that gasoline from 10 separate companies might run through a pipeline at any given time.
The mixture often sits in distribution centers for days before retailers pump it out and differentiate it from other gasolines by mixing in additives.
This tangled network of production makes it virtually impossible for consumers to know the origin of the gasoline they buy. They can, however, choose to boycott the firms responsible for pumping the most oil out of the Middle East to begin with.
Top importers with retail chains in the US include Chevron/Texaco, Exxon/Mobil, Marathon which operates Ashland and Speedway SuperAmerica-branded gasoline stations and Valero, which operates Beacon, Diamond Shamrock, Total, and Ultramar stations.
Efforts to establish mass boycotts of such gasoline retailers could be successful, because most Americans are not loyal to one gasoline brand over another.
"As soon as we point out to consumers that one company is worse than the others, there's no reason for them to keep buying gas there," says Kimberly Wilson, a spokeswoman with Greenpeace.
But critics of the Middle East-oil boycott point out that companies that don't pump oil out of the Middle East often get their oil from countries in Latin America, West Africa, or Southeast Asia whose political practices also come under fire. Others add that cutting off the flow of oil from the Middle East would cause gasoline prices in the US to soar.
Many motorists have no interest in making that sacrifice. "I'm willing to pay more for fuel just knowing it is not coming from the Middle East," says the webmaster of BoycottMiddleEastOil.com, who asked that his name be withheld. "But I think Americans are too hooked on cheap stuff to make a sacrifice right now."
A boycott alternative, experts say: Calling for automakers and the government to invest in energy alternatives, like hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid cars that are powered in part by electricity.
"Without those alternatives, you're caught in a bind where you have to use oil," says Mr. Beck.