Sales fall at area BP pumps in wake of spill

Ed Ellis has a grim warning for BP dealers in Maryland, whose business is off sharply as oil continues to flood into the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of those former customers will never return, predicts Ellis, chief executive of Ocean Petroleum Co. of Worcester County, among the Mid-Atlantic's largest gasoline distributors.

More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude into pristine Alaskan waters, "I have still got friends, personal friends, who will not buy Exxon gasoline from me here in Ocean City, as a way of getting back at the corporation," he said.

While President Barack Obama prepares to address the nation tonight about the environmental disaster, BP retailers are reeling from the public's anger.

Sales have fallen by up to 20 percent or more at BP outlets in the state, according to industry officials and station owners. The sales drop has accelerated as media coverage of the spill has mushroomed in recent weeks, they said.

Those shunning the company include Vashea Blackwell, 33, of Randallstown, who was pumping regular unleaded into a red Toyota Camry at a Liberty Road Shell station Monday when she said BP might never get her business again.

Standing just a few feet from a BP station, Blackwell said her newfound disdain for the company would cause her to stay away, even if owners resort to dropping prices or other gimmicks to lure customers back.

"I won't give them any business even if it is the last gas station around. I won't go to them because they haven't done their part in the cleanup," Blackwell said. "They have the money; they're just not doing their job."

BP station owners say they are the ones getting pinched in Maryland, where the oil company owns none of the stations that sell its gas.

"It's a scary time for a BP retailer," said Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, which represents firms that buy gasoline from oil companies and deliver it to service stations.

Across the region, "there is great concern about a public backlash," he said, with TV newscasts "each night showing all the birds soaking in oil on the beaches. And it builds and builds and builds."

Some customers, such as 63-year-old Mosell Smith, are more understanding. Preparing to gas up at a Texaco Station on Liberty Road, Smith called the oil spill "nothing more than an accident." He added that BP is doing what it can to assist in the cleanup and that he would not hesitate to buy its gas.

There is no way to know, say industry insiders, how much of the hit BP dealers are taking comes from organized boycotts.

A "Boycott BP" page on Facebook, the social networking website, has attracted more than 600,000 supporters. Various organizations, ranging from environmentalists to anti-corporate crusaders and peace groups on the left, have staged protests at stations in Baltimore and other cities.

BP retailers and others call those efforts badly misguided. Since BP has shed company-owned stations in the U.S., a consumer boycott isn't penalizing the oil company or its chief executive, Tony Hayward, they say.

Instead, the people getting hammered are local station owners, many of them independent business men and women whose main connection to BP is a contract to sell its products.

Majid Sahi, who owns four area BP stations, wants customers to know "they are not hurting BP at all but they are hurting my family. We cannot afford to be hurt anymore." Sales are off between 5 percent and 10 percent at his Baltimore stations and at least 20 percent in Catonsville, he said.

Sahi said there is no way for him to get out of his long-term agreement to pump BP gasoline. A more constructive response by those upset over the spill, he said, would be volunteering for cleanup efforts in Gulf states.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Maryland-based Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said his environmental group plans to send out an alert this week encouraging members to stay away from stations bearing BP's name.

"When a company ignores safety laws and environmental precautions and injures American society and the economy, then consumers should punish them," he said. "I think that many Americans are frustrated and want to do something about the oil spill."

Tidwell said the best thing the public could do would be to reduce oil consumption by driving less, since "it's our addiction to oil, not just to BP oil, that is the real problem here."

Some BP dealers in Maryland appear to have lowered prices in an effort to boost sales, but other station owners say the thin margins they operate on leave little room for cuts. They're at the mercy of events far outside their control, they say, with little expectation that business will rebound until BP caps the well, something that could take months.

Carroll Independent Fuel Co., which distributes gasoline to about 70 BP stations in the Baltimore and Washington area, held a seminar last week to help BP dealers cope with backlash from the spill, according to a BP retailer. Officials of the Baltimore-based company, which also bought nine BP stations when the British company sold its area stores several years ago, did not return phone messages requesting comment.

Not surprisingly, the falloff at BP pumps appears to be benefiting dealers of rival brands.

The owner of the BP station on Liberty Road in Randallstown, Hafiz Habib, said his business is down by approximately 20 percent. Meantime, competitors at nearby Shell and Texaco stations have seen sales increase by double-digits, he said.

"It's a very big challenge, because we are a very small business, a family business, and we have the same expenses but our income is reduced," Habib said. His stations have been a target of scattered "hate" violence, such as the smashing of a sign bearing the BP logo near one of his pumps, he said.

Nancy Lewis, a Randallstown resident who has shopped at BP stations for years, said a local promotion prompted her to switch brands. As she filled her tank with Shell gas, Lewis said she may not return to BP after the promotion ends.

"It all depends on if [BP] does a good job," Lewis said. "I mean, they messed up everything. Things will probably never be the same. Once something gets messed up, they never get back to the way it was."

paul.west@baltsun.com

brent.jones@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Kate Smith contributed to this article.

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