Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

San Jose Mercury News: Marina gas seller on a hunger strike to stop high fuel prices

San Jose Mercury News photo

Mehdi Shahbazi with fenced-off gas pumps at a Shell station in Marina Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007. Shahbazi is operator of the station, but he is in a dispute with Shell, alleging they, and other oil companies, fix high gas prices. He stays with friends and runs the gas station every day but hasn’t pumped gas for over a year. He is now is in day 61 of a hunger strike to call attention to his situation. (Patrick Tehan / Mercury News)

SELLER HOPING TO SPARK SUIT AGAINST BIG OIL
By Jeff Thomas
Mercury News
Article Launched: 09/05/2007 01:38:22 AM PDT

There was a time when Mehdi Shahbazi’s gas station just off Highway 1 in Marina was among the busiest and best-run in Northern California. The wooden plaques from Shell attesting to his performance still line the wall of the station’s mini-mart.

But little else about the station – or Shahbazi – remains the same.

A chain-link fence surrounds the pump islands – he hasn’t pumped a drop in almost two years. The shelves in the store are nearly bare, and the cash register rings only when someone comes in for a $5 carwash.

As for Shahbazi: He lost his Carmel condo to foreclosure last year, his wife and one son moved to Southern California to save money – and he’s now on Day 70 of a hunger strike, part of his quixotic protest against Big Oil.

Some call the protest misguided. He is, after all, the gas seller who publicly called the owners of oil companies crooks.

“I know what I’m doing is right,” Shahbazi said amid the neatly organized boxes of files stacked in the mini-mart. “I’ve put up my life on this thing.”

The 64-year-old, Iranian-born Shahbazi’s protest was dealt a setback last week when a federal judge in San Jose ruled that he must vacate the station within 30 days. He has kept the station open, at times living out of his van parked there, even after Shell cut off his gas supplies and sued him for allegedly breaking his lease agreement.

But Shahbazi said he intends to stay. He has 10 days to file a response to the ruling, in which he will ask for an extension of the eviction order.

A Shell spokeswoman said Monday that the company got what it asked for.

“We’re pleased with the ruling,” said Alison Chassin. “The focus was to have him removed from the property – and with this ruling that has been accomplished.”

Shahbazi’s predicament began in November 2005, when he put up a sign at his Marina Shell station that read: “Consumers’ pain is Big Oil’s unearned profit! To oppose it see cashier.”

Inside, he handed out fliers accusing oil companies of manipulating gas prices and trying to drive franchise owners like himself out of business by selling gas for less at company-owned stations. He says that the goal of Big Oil is to control the market and raise prices ever higher.

“I’ve been in this business for 37 years,” he said. “I know how the system works, or is supposed to work – and believe me, these price rises are not for real. The oil companies wait for a natural disaster, like Katrina, or a political crisis, and they raise prices 50 cents, a dollar. And then the prices never come back down.”

Oil companies contend that gas prices are determined by a market that ebbs and flows according to changes in refinery capacity, overseas demand and output quotas set by Mideast oil powers, among other factors.

Shell’s suit

Weeks after the signs went up, Shahbazi got a letter from Shell’s gas distributor telling him to take them down or have his gas supply cut off. He refused, and in December 2005 Shell filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Jose alleging that Shahbazi disparaged the company by putting up the signs, thus putting him in violation of his lease.

Shahbazi countersued, claiming he didn’t defame Shell because his flier was referring to all oil companies. He believes the signs were an exercise in free speech.

Judge Jeremy Fogel’s ruling, issued late Friday, doesn’t address the freedom-of-speech issue, but it does say that Shell’s termination of Shahbazi’s lease was valid because he failed to make a lease payment.

Shahbazi disputes that, saying he made a good-faith effort to pay the bill by offering to sell the remaining gas in his tanks to Shell. The tanks have remained locked since the dispute started. Shahbazi owns about $200,000 worth of equipment in his carwash and mini-mart. Shell owns the pumps, the tanks and the land.

To Shahbazi, the legal back-and-forth, the claims and counterclaims that he has been immersed in for two years, sometimes cloud what to him is exceedingly clear. The oil companies, he alleges, are cheating drivers out of hundreds of millions of dollars by artificially raising gas prices.

And the effect goes far beyond the price at the pump, he believes.

“This is affecting every level of society,” Shahbazi said. “High energy costs are passed along to the consumer, in all areas, driving the cost of everything else up. Pretty soon people are losing their homes, or losing their jobs. Something needs to be done.”

Hunger strike

And that’s where the hunger strike comes in. Shahbazi readily admits it is a ploy for media attention, albeit a potentially dangerous ploy.

Since he stopped eating solid food in June, Shahbazi has lost 25 pounds; he’s down to about 152. He survives on water, fruit juice and a tablespoon of yogurt a day, dissolved in tea. One of his kidneys is beginning to ache, he said, and he’s beginning to feel weaker. But he has resolved to continue.

“I really am doing this for the consumer,” he said. “I’m not going to get anything out of this. I could have sold my station back to Shell for a million dollars years ago if I was willing to just go away.”

Shahbazi’s ultimate goal is to help initiate a class-action suit against the major oil companies that would trigger refunds to consumers. He wants to set up an independently supervised legal account, funded by consumers, that would attract a law firm willing to take on Big Oil.

“If just 10 percent of U.S. drivers contributed the equivalent of half a tank of gas to the account, there would be more than enough to get the attention of a big law firm,” he said.

Although that may seem a grandiose goal, the animosity toward oil companies apparently runs deep. A 2006 Pew Research Center poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe gas prices are high because oil companies manipulate them. Whether Shahbazi’s quest can tap into that skepticism remains to be seen.

One woman who stopped at the Marina carwash last week said she was aware of Shahbazi’s plight, but came more for the $5 washes than out of feelings of solidarity.

“I think his heart is in the right place,” said Rene Staller, a Seaside homemaker who was cleaning her gray minivan. “But I don’t really know what to think about why gas prices are so high. It just all gets pretty confusing.”

——————————————————————————–
Contact Jeff Thomas at [email protected] or (408) 920-5892.

http://www.mercurynews.com/politics/ci_6804810?nclick_check=1

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

0 Comments on “San Jose Mercury News: Marina gas seller on a hunger strike to stop high fuel prices”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: