Want to 'buy American' at gas pump?

West Texas Intermediate. Algeria Saharan Blend. Saudi Arabia ArabianLight. These are not new blends at your local Starbucks. They're common grades of oil used in the production of gasoline sold at your local gas station.

The fact that consumers know more about the origins of their coffee than the origin for their gasoline is curious. Consumers spend about the same amount per day at their local Exxon or BP station as they do on their Grande-Skim-Extra-Shot-No-Whip-Mocha at Starbucks. (The average per capita gas consumption is three gallons per day - at $1.40 per gallon.) Yet while they eagerly ask for Kenya Peaberry or Guatemala Antigua when ordering coffee, would they do the same for Iraqi Mid Grade or Libyan Standard at the pump?

Since Sept. 11, any number of cars proudly display American-flag bumper stickers, many with captions such as, "These colors don't run." But it seems that US consumers are willing to run from their influence with the 176,000 gas retailers across the country by failing to demand no less than they demand at their local Starbucks: an informed choice about where the raw materials for their purchases come from.

Demanding country-of-origin labeling for gasoline is key to counter balancing the power Big Oil has over policy decisions in this country. Citizens may feel helpless with respect to the sway oil producers have over decisions, including perhaps military decisions, taken by Congress and the president. But consumers can have influence over their neighborhood gas retailer.

While Exxon and BP bring in billions of dollars annually in revenue, your neighborhood gas retailer probably nets less than $100,000 a year.

Your neighborhood retailer is dependent on individual customers to stay in business, and consumers can leverage their power at the pump. If enough consumers give the same market signal, they can pressure the neighborhood retailer who, in turn, pressures its gas supplier and so on up the supply chain.

So next time Saudi Arabia protests that it's being unfairly maligned over the role of its nationals in the Sept. 11 attacks, consumers can say, "We're not buying it." Literally. They can signal displeasure at the pump by demanding gas produced from North America, South American, or African oil.

Big Oil will protest that the supply chain for oil and its end product, gasoline, is complicated and that the need for flexibility and economies of scale in the manufacture and distribution of gasoline make it too difficult to keep track of source countries for the oil we buy. This isn't entirely true.

Tracking from oil field to gas pump is technically possible if buyers demand it. Witness the demand for oxygenated and reformulated gasolines aimed at reducing negative environmental impact.

This could lead to an increase in the price of gas at the pump. But consumers can make an informed choice and signal which they value more: cheaper gas or an end to being played with by an unreliable ally (Saudi Arabia), or a murderous dictator (Saddam Hussein).

This isn't a call for a boycott of Mideast oil, it's just a call for informed choice - the same premise used in country-of-origin labeling of food, clothing, cars, or coffee. After all, consumers have shown their willingness to buy American when it comes to textiles or cars, and we have not yet come close to fighting a war over these goods.

Gigi Brienza is a researcher and writer specializing in agricultural supply chain issues.

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