Made In The U.S.A.

Flies in the Gasoline

In Resources on March 21, 2009 at 12:54 am

My friend Adam called me the other night. And then he called me out.

His point was, essentially, that unless I’m doing without gasoline I’m not really “only buying American.”

That hurts, Adam. That hurts.

His point was simple–oil comes from around the world. Am I choosing only the stuff from the U.S? My response was equally simple, I thought. Gasoline that is purchased here is refined here. I think.

Then we went back and forth a bit about raw materials vs. the “finishing” of a product on our shores. As much as I don’t like it, I think he’s got a point.

I said, and still say, that I can’t be expected to follow the raw materials of everything I buy back to their original sources. In the case of gasoline, that means not concerning myself with the country in which the crude oil is pulled from the ground. Just like I can’t police where an American maker of t-shirts sources its cotton, or where an American maker of shoes sources rubber, or whether the diner down the street buys American cheese for my three-egg omlette.

But the real question is whether I’m seeing the raw materials in the right light. Is the crude oil like the raw cotton in my hip graphic tee? Or is it more like the finished shirt, if the cotton was sourced from China, the t-shirt was made in China, and then it was shipped to the U.S. for the application of the hip graphic? In that scenario, I would definitely err on the side of caution. I wouldn’t buy that t-shirt, because to my eye it’s not really American-made. So am I kidding myself about the oil?

There’s a reason why I can’t worry about raw materials in my gasoline. You’re about to see it too. Sorry. (In lieu of lots of boring gas info, you can skip to the last couple of paragraphs.)

Here’s a great site for awesome oil industry facts and figures. The guy’s a hobbyist with an even weirder hobby than mine. He researches gasoline. Things I’ve learned from his site include:

– Because most retail marketers buy their gasoline from the big refineries, and because all the big refineries have significant imported oil (from all over) in their streams, it is very unlikely that you could go to any major national brand gas station and get gasoline that did not derive to some extent from oil originally found in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Canada, Mexico, etc.

– Exceptions might be those few companies, limited in geographic scope, that do their own exclusive producing, refining, and marketing. Even they likely blend other purchased crudes in their refinery streams.

– Most gasoline marketers buy their gasoline from refineries–so a better question would be are there any refineries that do not import oil. The answer is very few. All major marketers get their gasoline from major refineries, and all major refineries use imported oil–they have to, otherwise they would not have nearly enough (total US imports equal almost two-thirds of our consumption these days). And the mix changes from day to day.

Interesting. So, where are the major refineries? According to Wikipedia, they’re all over the world. And Texas.

Also according to Wikipedia, the bureaucratic difficulty of building a refinery in the U.S. means none have been built here since 1976. And, because of our increasing demand, that means we even import finished gasoline.

Ouch.

This site lists 2007 statistics regarding from whom we import finished gasoline. Turns out it’s primarily from the U.K. because they need diesel more than gasoline, so they send us their surplus. Interestingly too, it appears we get most of our crude oil from Canada; even more than we get from Saudi Arabia.

Here’s a site that seems to have every oil-related statistic you could want–including a downloadable Excel spreadsheet listing over 1200 recent import transactions that, near as I can tell, allow you to see what companies imported crude, and what companies imported motor gasoline. In the case of BP, you can assume those products end up down the line in BP gas stations. But for retailers without their own refineries, you’d have to match their purchasing habits with the refineries, then find the refineries on this list to see what they imported in terms of finished gasoline, then determine that as a percentage of total output in total, then decide if you were happy with that import-to-locally-refined ratio.

Being a conscientious consumer is hard.

Let’s try it this way: What are the gasoline-buying options in the St. Louis area?

According to my GasBuddy they are: BP, Quiktrip, 7-Eleven, Mobil, Shell, ZX, Sam’s Club, Phillips 66, Conoco, Speedie and Sinclair. I’ve never heard of ZX or Speedie. Sinclair’s logo is a dinosaur, so I’ve always thought they were cool. They’re also on the list above that is a regional Utah refinery that perhaps brings primarily American crude into their system. I’ll have to investigate.

(On a side note, there used to be Citgo, which was actually Argentinian-owned, as I understand, but maybe they’re all rebranded by now. A little research and, sure enough, Citgo is owned by an Argentine petrol company. But there aren’t any more Citgo stations in St. Louis, according to the Citgo store locator. I do recall that the one down the block from my last house was rebranded Midwest Petroleum. Turns out that Midwest Petroleum sells ConocoPhillips branded gasoline.)

For the moment, let’s assume that the major retailers on that list either own or purchase from major refineries in the U.S. that import both crude and finished gasoline. Those companies make it, essentially, impossible to tell where the gas you pump comes from. That takes BP, Mobil, Shell, Phillips 66, Conoco and, of course, Midwest Petroleum off that list. The “boutique” gasoline venders in St. Louis are Quiktrip, 7-Eleven, ZX, Sam’s Club, Speedie and Sinclair.

7-Eleven is a convoluted story. Essentially, though, it used to be partnered with Citgo. It still is, but other gasoline retailers are also partnered with them–including Fina, Exxon, Marathon, BP and Pennzoil. Alon USA is 7-Eleven’s primary gasoline partner in the U.S. Alon USA was formed after Alon, the largest Israeli oil company, bought a bunch of Fina stores in the U.S. from Total SA–a french oil company.

This is getting difficult again.

The point is, 7-Eleven sure appears to fall into the “big oil” chain via association with so many “big oil” retailers. (If you wanna see a “big oil” flow chart, click here.)

Quiktrip’s gasoline used to be “private label” branded. Redline, it was called. Until 1990, when they stopped selling that. Where it comes from now, the company doesn’t make easy to see. But it is certified “Top Tier” which is a whole other ball of wax that probably doesn’t mean anything to me and my Hyundai. As far as I can tell, QT buys its gas from a variety of refineries–presumably whoever will give them a good deal. Much like generic canned corn comes off the same line as a name brand, gasoline is made at the same refineries whether it’s officially “big oil” gasoline or convenience store gasoline. “Certified” gasoline appears to be a marketing/branding gimmick, no matter who’s selling it. I’m guessing the additives you hear about–detergents and such–can be tweaked from any refinery for any retailer. Or not–because how would we, the buying public, know?

Sam’s Club, and Wal Mart, also buy gas in much the same way as another convenience store would–by partnering with a gasoline refinery or retailer. I can’t find any cold hard facts on which stores buy from whom, but I did find this Yahoo answer that talks about Murphy Oil Corp. supplying much–if not all–Wal Mart gas. Given that Murphy Oil is based in Arkansas, where Wal Mart’s from, and that this oil company that I’ve never before heard of is the 169th largest company in America, that makes sense.

I think Speedie is actually Speedy, which is the new branding of Speedway Superamerica, which is affiliated with Marathon, which is a big refiner. I think. Either that or Speedie is a local mom ‘n pop shop that buys gas from whoever gives them a good price. Hard to say, really.

I get the feeling ZX is like Speedie. It appears to be a rinky-dink local gas station chain. I say rinky-dink because it doesn’t have a web site. And its name is ZX. I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you that a gas station named ZX is not like a gas station named BP. But they sell gas, and gas makes your car go. Good enough for me at this point.

That brings us to Sinclair. The 38th largest private company in the U.S. is currently based in Salt Lake City. It’s got a long and rich tradition in the American oil economy. And its Wikipedia entry concludes with an interesting sentence: Sinclair is recognized by the Terror-Free Oil Initiative as one of the few filling stations that does not buy oil from terrorism-sponsoring states such as those in the Middle East.

Hot damn.

I’m not gonna get into whether “terror free” may really just equate to “muslim free” but I will say this: Sinclair sells gasoline made from crude oil sourced from the United States and Canada.

That’s at least somewhat local, right?

But it’s still not 100% ‘Merican-made. According to the Terror Free web site, no retailers in the U.S. sell only American-sourced gas. Sinclair’s the closest. A few other brands I’m unfamiliar with source from the U.S., Canada and Mexico too. The point is, you can’t buy 100% American-made gasoline.

The next question is: so what then?

Well, it turns out Adam’s right. If you’re buying gasoline, you’re not buying “only” things that are Made In The USA.

But I’m trying.

Instead of worrying about buying American-made gasoline, I could of course consider buying “better” gasoline. According to The Sierra Club’s list of environmentally “friendly” gasoline providers, in St. Louis I should buy BP gas.

Okay.

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sinclair

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