A decade ago, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and started spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a Toronto lawyer had an epiphany while sitting in traffic on a 14-lane highway and listening to a public radio station talk about the disaster.
“They had expert guests and a bunch of callers all saying in unison, ‘Shame on BP,'” says Rob Shirkey, the lawyer-turned-activist. “And I’m looking at thousands of vehicles in front of me and thousands of vehicles behind me. I kind of had this moment where if I thought if I could put on X-ray goggles and magically see through all the cars, all I would see is people sitting on tanks of fuel. But for us engaging in this activity, collectively, the incident would never have happened.”
Shirkey launched a new nonprofit and began advocating for an intervention that could give drivers a simple reminder of their connection to the environmental impact of the oil industry: Warning labels on gas tanks, a little like the warning labels on cigarette packaging. The idea got some traction, but was never implemented—until now. Cambridge, Massachusetts, is now rolling out the labels. Every gas station in the city will have to display them on their pumps.
The bright yellow stickers, which will be installed in the coming weeks, read, “Warning: Burning Gasoline, Diesel, and Ethanol has major consequences on human health and the environment including contributions to climate change.”
After advocacy from a group called Think Beyond the Pump, the city began considering the idea in 2016, and the city solicitor gave a legal opinion at the time saying that was viable to pursue. It took several years to move forward, but the city finally passed an ordinance requiring the labels in January 2020.
“Will it change behavior? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that this kind of education can change behavior,” says Patricia Nolan, a first-term city councilmember who helped push the city to finalize the new labels after the ordinance passed. “In this case, will people drive less? I hope so. I hope they are also reminded: ‘Every single time I fill up my car, I am literally contributing to a public health problem, and to the climate crisis.'”
While the labels might nudge some drivers to walk or bike more, they could also help build political support for broader action, says Shirkey. “If you can make the consequences [of burning fuel] more tangible, how does that inform the discussion that a community has around funding public transit? I think a politician may have more support, or at least less opposition, to a particular piece of climate legislation.”
In Canada, North Vancouver mandated warning labels in 2016, but after pressure from the fossil fuel industry, watered down the final result, which just gave drivers a tip on maintaining tire pressure to improve gas mileage and had a link to more information about climate change. The labels in Cambridge are the first to express the original intent, though Nolan says they should go further with the next iteration of the design. “Let’s make sure the warning is bigger, because it won’t do anyone any good if they can’t read it,” she says.