'Gas roots' protest over pump prices

Consumers, blaming big oil, boycott stations.

It sounds like a late-night joke: Did you hear the one about the Texan who drives a pickup truck and wants to boycott gasoline stations?

Leno and Letterman, meet Stephanie Cain, a resident of Houston, who has been avoiding the pumps at her favorite gas station. "The oil companies have no regard for the consumer," says Ms. Cain, the owner of a "gas hog" Dodge Ram pickup. "They are just lining their pockets."

She's far from alone in wanting to punish the pumps. Websites are springing up (www. boycottgasoline.com, among others), e-mails zinging oil companies are flying through the ether, and, yes, someone is both trying to boycott gasoline in California and get a "fuel revolt" proposition on the ballot this fall. With gasoline prices continuing to ratchet up - the weighted national average hit $2.10 a gallon last week - a "gas roots" effort is being pushed with populist zeal.

The revolt at the pumps comes at a time when Saudi Arabia has pledged to boost production in an effort to meet rising world demand and respond to a call from G-7 ministers to prevent high oil prices from slowing economic growth. Monday morning, the price of crude oil rose modestly, to $41 a barrel, over concern about OPEC's unity and whether supply could be brought up to meet demand.

Still, the Saudi actions will probably have more of an impact than the boycotts. Yet the gas revolt shows how angry consumers are at the oil companies. In an August 2003 poll, Gallup found the oil companies ranked last among 25 industries in terms of people's positive impressions. Only the healthcare industry drew higher "negative" views. "The oil companies are hearing grumbles and they are also hearing from Congress, so they know people are unhappy," says Fred Taub of Boycott Watch, a Cleveland-based group that tries to give consumers both sides of boycott issues.

Consumers may be unhappy, but the oil industry maintains it's not to blame for the high prices. "The problem is a misunderstanding of the fundamentals," says John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. "Crude oil prices are up $1 a gallon, add on 43 cents in federal and state taxes, add refining and marketing costs, and hopefully a company gets some profits out of it."

While the oil industry says it hopes to make a profit, Bill Ambrose thinks they're making too much. "To me it's like theft: They are stealing from the American public," says the Fullerton, Calif., civil engineer, who has constructed a website, gasolineboycott.com. Calling himself one of the leaders of the gaspump insurrection, he proposes a "rolling boycott," picking one company at a time. Currently, he wants consumers to boycott Exxon/Mobil. "They had a 40 percent increase in profits for that whole new year," he says.

Mr. Felmy concedes that earnings have increased compared to last year. But he points out that the second quarter of 2003 was a poor quarter, making it a bad comparison. "Margins have increased in the refining sector," he admits, but adds, "The companies also have higher costs of operation so it's too soon to tell what the profit rates will be like. They may be big numbers because they are big companies, but the profits are likely to be in line with the average business."

Ambrose is hardpressed to believe this and is trying to get his own message out through fliers, advertisements in newspapers, and the Internet. As he drives his 1971 Ford Mustang (12 miles to the gallon) on the highways, he picks up new converts reading his bumper sticker with his website address. "People get behind me and take notes," he explains.

He's also trying to get a proposition, called the California Fuel Revolt, on the ballot in the fall. If enacted, it would require energy companies operating in the state to lower prices 40 cents a gallon below the national average for six months, force the divestiture of refineries from retail outlets, and mandate a minimum 25 percent gasoline reserve. "I've sent it to Arnold, and now I'm trying to get a large organization like a trucking association to help me obtain signatures," he says.

On the other side of the nation, John Tyler of Norton, Mass., has started yet another website, boycottgasoline.com, which he calls the "World's LARGEST consumer advocacy site for gas prices!" Like Ambrose, Mr. Tyler is trying to get people to boycott one major company every month. "We don't like to be toyed with," says Tyler, who drives a Hyundai that gets 22 miles to the gallon.

The concept appealed to Megan Brier, who also boycotted gasoline one day last week as she drove her Jeep Grand Cherokee, which gets 15 to 21 miles per gallon, from Cove Point, Md., to Washington, D.C. "I can afford it, but I don't like paying those prices," she says.

She responded to an e-mail her brother sent that suggested if everyone boycotted gasoline stations for a day, the oil companies would choke on their inventories. If that's going to happen, it will take a lot more people ignoring their gas gauges. At a Mobil station in Houston, Dino Zografos says he didn't notice any change in his volume. "I didn't even realize there was a boycott until just now. Did I miss something?"

Kris Axtman in Houston contributed to this story.

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