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Hold the boycott

With tens of thousands of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico every day since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, Americans have rightly looked to the company and to their federal government for a solution to the environmental catastrophe that has unfolded.

Sadly, neither BP nor the government has been successful in stopping the flow of oil. In fact, neither the company nor the government has even been able to come to a solid estimate of the rate at which the oil is escaping from the broken pipe more than a mile below the water’s surface. The latest guesses are that between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day are leaking into the Gulf. The New York Times estimates that as of Saturday, somewhere between 35.4 million and 102.8 million gallons of oil have been released into the water there.

Considering the relentless news coverage of all that gooey, tarry oil wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast environment as it kills fish, birds and mammals and closes more than 30 percent of the Gulf to fishing, there is little wonder in the fact that Americans have had enough.

A company with the technical ability to extract oil from the earth a mile beneath the surface of the water, we believe, also should have the expertise needed to stem the flow of that oil following an accident. And government that allows companies to conduct such work should have emergency plans in place in the event that something goes wrong and the company is helpless to fix it.

Helpless in their own right to affect the environmental crisis in the Gulf and angry at the ineffectiveness of those responsible for it, many Americans have turned to that great capitalist threat — the boycott. In a free market, when a company makes an inferior product or engages in behavior that we feel to be objectionable, consumers exercise their freedom to shun that company and its products. Boycotts have a long history in America, and they’ve been carried out on a wide scale with even less prompting than BP’s environmental intransigence.

But refusing to patronize convenience stores that happen to sell BP gasoline hurts the small businessmen who run the convenience stores far more than it hurts BP. The store owners make a tiny percentage of profit from the gas they sell; most of their money comes from the food, drinks and sundries they sell inside their stores. The gas pumps are there more to attract customers to stop than they are to make money for the store owners.

Americans have a right to be angry with BP. But turning that anger on the people who operate local BP stations isn’t the way to handle it. Avoid buying your gas there if you must, but be sure to spend some money inside the stores instead. Otherwise the next victims of this catastrophe will not be the huge corporation responsible for it, but the little shopkeepers alongside highways around the nation.