Gas, Sweat and Tears
Thursday, May 4, 2006
Several plaques overlooking the gas station’s soda machine hang in silent testimony to better days for Mehdi Shahbazi. The plaques are Triple Crown awards, handed out by Shell Oil every year to its best gas station dealer from King City to Santa Rosa.
Shahbazi was, Shell Oil officials acknowledged from 1986 through 1989, the best in this area.
But now, Shahbazi, his wife Valerie and their two children are hanging on to the gas station by their fingernails. Since November, Shell Oil and its representative, Peninsula Petroleum, have been trying to remove Shahbazi from the Marina Shell station that he’s run for more than 20 years.
One way they’re doing that is by crippling his ability to sell gas at a time when prices have surpassed the $3.20 per gallon in many places. Four shiny new gas pumps Shell Oil installed at the station in November are still wrapped behind locked fences, transforming the once award-winning gas station into nothing more than a glorified car wash selling a few brands of cigarettes, coffee and soda.
Shahbazi says he’s flat broke, and that the creditors are after him. He already lost his Carmel home and will have to move out any minute (where he’ll go, he’s not sure).
“I used to plan my life 10 years at a time,” says Shahbazi, 63, who says he gets about three hours of sleep a night. “Now I’m just living from minute to minute.”
Despite all this, Shahbazi has not given up his battle against Shell. He’s fighting the company in court, arguing that the signs he erected on the station’s property last fall—accusing big oil companies of gouging consumers—were legal and an expression of his First Amendment rights.
Peninsula Petroleum and Shell Oil canceled Shahbazi’s franchise-agreement in November because Shahbazi refused to take the signs down when they asked him to. The signs’ messages initially raised eyebrows, but now represent a commonly heard complaint in the country as big oil company profits pierce the stratosphere. Last week, for example, Exxon Mobil Corp. reported $8.4 billion in profit in the first three months of 2006, while other oil companies reaped similar benefits.
“Now President George Bush and other politicians are saying that oil companies are gouging and profiteering consumers,” Shahbazi says. “Ninety percent of people probably agree with that too, so why couldn’t I say it six months ago?”
Together, Mehdi and his wife take turns keeping the Shell station open 24 hours a day to keep Shell officials from moving in and locking them out. Valerie says she knows that some people think they’re crazy—especially her husband—but they’re mistaken.
“Mehdi is the kind of guy where if he’s right, you simply won’t win an argument with him,” she says. “He’ll fight for what he believes in to the very end.
“Besides, we’ve been here 20 years, we’ve performed for Shell, and we just want to be fairly compensated for that.”
While the Shahbazi’s hint that they’ll leave the gas station for a fair price, Mehdi stresses the fact that gas prices will continue to rise until consumers take proactive action, like refusing to buy gas at certain oil company-owned stations. Last weekend, he held a small anti-oil gouging rally at his Marina gas station, pinning up black ribbons to the fences surrounding the idle gas pumps as a way to protest current prices.
“I honestly believe that if the country continues like this, we are heading to slavery again,” says Shahbazi. “Whoever controls the wealth will control the slaves, and whoever doesn’t have any wealth will become the slave.”