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There is an e-mail in circulation urging drivers to purchase gas from companies that import no oil from Middle Eastern nations. Such conscientious consumerism is suggested as a way to help promote U.S. independence from Mideastern energy sources, which have proven both economically and politically unstable.

Unfortunately, scrutiny of would-be alternative suppliers often reveals embarrassing environmental legacies and their own political baggage.

Among the endorsed companies are Citgo, British Petroleum (BP), Phillips and Conoco. Citgo is owned and operated by the government of Venezuela. Relations between Venezuela and the U.S. have been strained for some time, and the CIA recently named Venezuela the top potentially unstable country in Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has referred to oil as a "geopolitical weapon." In 2002, Chavez was briefly removed from power in a coup; news outlets contemplated Washington's involvement.

The greater region suffers internal strife. Sometimes local insurgency results in environmental wreckage, for example the repeated dynamiting of oil pipelines in Colombia (largely belonging to BP and Occidental), which has spilled millions of gallons of oil. But even without sabotage, the oil industry in Venezuela has developed largely without environmental regulation, resulting in severe pollution and displacement of indigenous peoples.

Events in Colombia and Venezuela have brought BP international criticism. The Colombian military provides security for much of the pipeline, and has been accused of multiple human rights violations, which BP is said to ignore. In addition to activities in Colombia, BP is the largest operator on Alaska's North Slope and is among four companies pushing to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 1999, BP was fined $22 million for dumping hazardous waste in Alaska.

Phillips is also looking to drill in Alaska, claiming that environmental impacts will be negligible. Meanwhile, the National Response Center has listed Phillips as the "suspected responsible company" in more than 900 oil spills. Even more discreditable is their worker-safety reputation. Two explosions 11 years apart at their Texas chemical plant killed 24 people, injured hundreds and resulted in 566 OSHA citations for "willful" violations the first time, and 50 allegations of safety-standards violations the second.

Conoco has paid significant fines for environmental violations in Colorado, Louisiana, Montana and Oklahoma. This subsidiary of DuPont has drilled in Utah's Grand Staircase, and is currently seeking to explore for oil in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Indonesia. In the early 1990s, Conoco was directly involved in U.S military activities related to Somalia's civil war.

Other companies importing no oil from the Middle East are Sunoco, Sinclair and Amaranda Hess. To their credit, all seem to have responsible environmental records and no political embroilments. Rewarding these companies with consumer dollars therefore makes a positive impact. Still, it must be realized that the true cost of oil is not just dollars but lives, cultures and ecosystems. A more substantial solution? Demand funding for alternative energy research.

In a congressional hearing in June 2002, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., stated: "The national security of the United States depends on the reliable supply of energy. We must devise alternate sources of energy."

Environmentalists and conservatives now both promote alternative energy research, albeit for different reasons. Many conservatives are surrendering long-held platforms advocating further oil exploration, and instead are promoting new technologies such as biofuels and alternative-energy vehicles.

Biofuels are derived from plant sources, such as soy and corn. Biodiesel, for example, is simply processed vegetable oil. The processing enables its use as a direct replacement for diesel fuel in most engines, with no equipment modification requirements. Biofuels offer a way for the United States to quickly advance on the long road to energy independence and also are kinder to the environment.

Recently, a prominent, bipartisan group of national security experts urged that President Bush press industry to offer more vehicles that run on something other than gasoline or diesel. Toyota and Honda currently sell "hybrid" passenger cars, which run on a combination of gas and electricity, while Ford, Chevy and GM all recently introduced hybrid trucks and SUVs.

American energy independence is now viewed as a bipartisan issue. But to be realized, it must be recognized by the public as a consumer issue. Public discussion about energy independence is not the same as consumer buy-in. The people need to speak up, not only through letters and e-mails, but also with their wallets. With the House currently in the process of drafting an energy bill, there truly is no better time than the present for people to make their views known.

Melody Von Smith is a Buffalo-based freelance writer with a master's degree from Penn State in environmental pollution control.