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Where is the most ethical place to fill up your car?

If ever there was a “What’s your poison?” dilemma, this is it. First, history: Shell in Nigeria, Total in Burma… No brand gets off lightly…

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Pumped up: choose an independent petrol station if you want to be an ethical motorist. Photograph: MBI /Alamy

Lucy Siegle: The Observer, Sunday 17 November 2013

If ever there was a “What’s your poison?” dilemma, this is it. First, history: Shell in Nigeria, Total in Burma… No brand gets off lightly, but Exxon (merged with Mobil in 1999 to make the world’s largest oil company) is famous for its campaign to de-legitimise climate science, not least by funding the influential US lobbying group Global Climate Coalition (GCC).

Until the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe – the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – BP had a better reputation. It withdrew from the GCC in 1996, accepted climate change in 1997, and spent the early 2000s investing in solar. Elf Aquitaine (later merged with Total) never contested climate change, but arguably hasn’t done much to help the planet either.

Can you pick an early favourite so far? Ethicalconsumer.org put Merco top in its league table of UK oil. Venerable US eco organisation the Sierra Club rated Sunoco (only available in the US, unfortunately) just ahead of BP. But this was pre Deepwater Horizon – a watershed for the idea of ethical petrol, too. That 2010 catastrophe was initially greeted with a consumer boycott of BP garages – then we were told it would have no impact on BP but instead would drive small, independent garage forecourt owners out of business. The wider message: it’s impossible to know where your petrol comes from, because after an oil company extracts crude oil, it’s sent through shared pipelines, with retailers merely buying unbranded gasoline. Most petrol is sold by a third party (of 9,000 places to fill up just 30% are owned by major oil brands and supermarkets). However, BP owns 350 forecourts; plus independents that sell products with BP additives must pay BP.

Why shouldn’t you steer away from forecourts if you disagree with their actions? Or retailers which are sustainable but then get together with oil companies to take over forecourts? Waitrose “shelved” plans to extend its outlets with Shell after pressure from Greenpeace on Arctic drilling.

Indie petrol stations are at least a buffer to one giant corporate takeover. Tebay services champions local producers, and a branch opens off the M5 this summer. Might it one day have an “Arctic-free” pump? UK environmentalist Brendan May argues that Shell has no business extracting from the Arctic, and that oil should have an Arctic-free supply chain. He reckons this is as possible as “dolphin-free tuna” or “FSC-certified toilet paper”. I buy that.

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