Gas Station Owners Pay The Price For BP Affiliation The anger against BP has prompted some protesters to picket in front of BP-branded gas stations. But BP sold off its retail gas business, so the 13,000 BP gas stations are generally independent franchisees. Betty Camacho, who owns a station in suburban Washington, D.C., says she has fought with BP and had tried to get out of her contract before the spill. And now it's really costing her.

Gas Station Owners Pay The Price For BP Affiliation

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As the days go on and on, it's hard to know what the rest of us can do about the spill. Some people have been picketing in front of BP-branded gas stations. Others held vigils at stations in North Carolina. In New York, some BP signs were vandalized. In front of another, a crowd chanted.

(Soundbite of chanting, "BP, your heart is black. You can have your oil back")

INSKEEP: Jesse Jackson has called for a BP boycott. The only complication is that BP started selling off its retail gas business back in 2007. Today nearly all of the 13,000 BP gas stations are independent franchises.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi visited one.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Five years ago, the chance to buy this gas station lot with its busy repair shop from BP, seemed like an opportunity for Jose and Betty Camacho. The husband and wife figured this well-traveled stretch between Washington, D.C. and its Maryland suburbs should generate lots of business. They own their business but are franchisees, and by contract they must buy their gas from BP until 2020.

Now that affiliation is causing problems. Betty Camacho says people associate their independent business with what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ms. BETTY CAMACHO (Co-Owner, Gas Station): I can see my volume is not the same. I see that they are not coming.

NOGUCHI: Volume dropped from 88,000 gallons a month to 70,000. An irate customer recently told her he didn't want to buy BP gas but had no choice because he'd run out.

Ms. CAMACHO: Otherwise I would not have stopped here, because I know that you represent a company that's messed up.

NOGUCHI: The Camachos find it bitterly ironic that they should pay the price for their affiliation with BP. Betty Camacho says she has fought with the company mostly over its rules. She says BP typically charges several cents more per gallon that wholesale market rates. Also, BP requires the station to run all gas-related credit card payments through BP's processing system. She says that hamstrings her shop's cash flow because the money doesn't post to their account until seven days later.

BP spokesman Jon Pack says the price it charges franchisees for gas is based on supply and demand. He added, BP supports its affiliates, but he confirmed that the company so far hasn't offered any financial support.

Before the spill, the Camachos tried to get out of their contract, but Betty Camacho says the legal fees were too high. And now the business faces a cash crunch. To demonstrate this, she shows me her latest business account statement.

(Unintelligible) they drew $23,777.

Ms. CAMACHO: Yes.

NOGUCHI: That's because of what? Because of the gasoline that you bought?

Ms. CAMACHO: Yes.

NOGUCHI: So, now it looks like your account actually has a negative balance of...

Ms. CAMACHO: Yes.

NOGUCHI: ...$9,623.88.

Ms. CAMACHO: That's right. You see? I have to bring, today, this amount of money to my account.

NOGUCHI: In search of money, she goes to an ancient-looking safe behind the cash register.

(Soundbite of safe opening)

NOGUCHI: She pulls out three envelopes - all from yesterday - and starts to count.

Ms. CAMACHO: Hundred-twenty-seven, plus 122...

NOGUCHI: She's short $9,000, and she's looking distraught. She says she sometimes uses her credit card to borrow money, but today it's maxed out. Reluctantly, she says, there's only one place left to turn: her brother.

Ms. CAMACHO: I know how much love my family show me. It's not easy for me. So, first always I'm always looking on my credit cards before I make that phone call.

NOGUCHI: With eyes cast downward, she makes the call.

Ms. CAMACHO: (Spanish language spoken)

NOGUCHI: She explains her cash-flow problem and her need for a short-term loan.

Ms. CAMACHO: Okay. Thank you. Bye-bye.

NOGUCHI: What did he say?

Ms. CAMACHO: He's coming to bring me the check.

NOGUCHI: She's relieved, at least for today. But if consumers continue steering away from stations like hers, it's not clear how much longer the business can survive.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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