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A Gulf Full Of Oil Can't Beat A Tank Full Of Gas

A lot of BP's oil eventually winds up in the gas tanks of American cars, so you'd think the current crisis on the Gulf Coast might make people think twice at the pump. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio sets out to talk to customers at a gas station and find out what they think about the spill, and the decisions they make as consumers.

It's mid-morning, and I'm out driving in my truck. On the radio, of course, it's 24/7 about the Gulf oil spill. Everybody's talking about it, and everybody's saying there are no easy answers.

So the question I wanted to ask people at gas stations here in upstate New York was, "Do you feel any connection or responsibility as you gas up your car for this horrible thing that you're watching on the news?"

I stop at a convenience store in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and the first thing I find is that people are following this disaster really closely.

"It's [a] pretty awful thing that's going on," says customer Kayla Martin. "Pollution, animals in the water getting harmed."

People are also really, really angry. Dwayne Carpenter, a guy with a yellow biker beard and tattoos, grumbles as he fills up his truck.

"I don't see anything happening fast enough," he says. "We've seen too much kill the wildlife, and I want my kids to grow up and have the same things I had."

Some people are also just sick of the whole mess. Ed Scharmer is gassing up his truck and filling a jerry jug. He kind of shrugs and admits he's starting to tune the spill out.

"It's to the point where I don't want to watch it anymore," he says. "It's discouraging. I don't feel that there's anything that I can do about it."

But BP wasn't just tinkering around out there in the Gulf. The company was trying to create a product that we all buy every day.

Gas is something we all want -- and want cheap. Most of the people I talked to were driving what you'd have to call gas-guzzlers, so I asked whether they feel any personal culpability.

"Uh, no," Carpenter says. When I ask the question, he looks sort of angry.

"You know, we have to survive up here," he says. "The truck is my livelihood. Without it, I wouldn't have my business. So if those gas prices go up, we have to pay it."

I hear this a lot. People are disgusted by the oil spill, but what really has them worried is the idea that gas prices will spike.

Martin says driving a lot is unavoidable, especially in this rural area. "It's an everyday thing that you need in life," she says. "We need gas, so it kind of puts us in a situation."

The people I talked to get the fact that more of our oil is coming from riskier places -- from countries that are politically unstable, and from parts of the world that are environmentally sensitive.

A Quinnipiac poll released on June 1 found that public support for offshore drilling has dipped. But Scharmer says most people just don't see many options.

"We're using too much fuel. But we still use it, the way our life is," he says. I ask if he thinks this is the kind of thing that will make him cut back a little, and he says no.

"I don't think this will. If we haven't moved already on thoughts along those lines, then this is not going to move us."

I should say that while I was at the convenience store, I filled up my gas tank, too.

What I heard there was that people are angry, but they also don't see a real connection between the spill in the Gulf and the decisions they're making about the cars and trucks they drive, and the number of times they fill up the tank in the week.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.