The hidden cost of gasoline

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A black, electric-powered Nissan Leaf pulled up to a gas station — not to fuel up, of course. Matthew Metz, the founder of Coltura, a nonprofit trying to speed up the country’s shift away from gasoline, climbed out of his car with printed maps in hand, prepared to give me a tour.

It was a sunny spring day, and the Arco station in North Seattle looked like any other on a busy street corner, with cars fueling up and a line of bored people waiting to buy snacks and drinks inside the convenience store. Metz knows a lot about gas stations, and it changes what he sees. Looking around, he marveled at the risks that everyone was taking, even if they weren’t aware of it. “This is a hazardous materials facility,” he told me.

Drivers pumped their tanks with gas, breathing carcinogens like benzene, the source of gasoline’s signature sweet smell. On the east side of the property, tall white pipes that vent toxic vapors from petroleum kept underground stood just 10 feet away from the window of a childcare center. Hidden below the station is a tract of contaminated soil that extends underneath a neighboring apartment building.

The Arco station has a long history of leaking, with petroleum products discovered floating in the septic tank beneath it in 1990. After decades of efforts to remove and break down that pollution — a host of contaminants including lead, benzene, and the suspected carcinogen methyl tertiary-butyl ether — trace amounts remain, with some highly polluted patches in the soil. One sample taken late last year showed levels of gasoline-related compounds 72 times higher than Washington state’s allowable limit.

a man in a jacket and sunglasses walks in front of a gas stationMatthew Metz, the founder of the nonprofit Coltura, walks in front of an Arco gas station in Seattle. Grist / Jesse Nichols

This Arco station is hardly unique. Almost every gas station eventually pollutes the earth beneath it, experts told Grist. The main culprit: the underground storage tanks that hold tens of thousands of gallons of fuel, one of the most common sources of groundwater pollution. Typically, two or three of these giant, submarine-shaped tanks are buried under a station to store the gasoline and diesel that gets piped to the pump. A large tank might be 55 feet long and hold as many as 30,000 gallons; a typical tank might hold 10,000 gallons. Leaks can occur at any point — in the storage tank itself, in the gas pumps, and in the pipes that connect them. Hazardous chemicals can then spread rapidly through the soil, seeping into groundwater, lakes, or rivers. Even a dribble can pollute a wide area. Ten gallons of gasoline can contaminate 12 million gallons of groundwater — a significant risk, given that groundwater is the source of drinking water for nearly half of all Americans.

As a result, time-consuming cleanup efforts are unfolding all across the country, with remediation for a single gas station sometimes topping $1 million. Leaks are such a huge liability that they’ve led to a high-stakes game of hot potato, where no one wants to pay for the mess — not the gas station owners, not the insurance companies that provide coverage for tanks, not the oil companies that supply the fuel. In some states, polluters have shifted tens of millions of dollars in remediation costs onto taxpayers. Roughly 60,000 contaminated sites are still waiting to be cleaned up, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA — and those are just the ones that have been found. Washington state has about 2,500 in line, one of the biggest backlogs in the country.

“The whole financial underpinnings of gas stations are starting to crumble.

Much of this pollution has been stagnant for decades. Forty years ago, steel storage tanks began corroding, setting off a slow-motion environmental disaster all over the United States. Leaks often weren’t discovered until long after petroleum had poisoned the groundwater, when neighbors of gas stations began complaining that the water from their taps smelled like gasoline. In 1983, the EPA declared leaking tanks a serious threat to groundwater, and Congress soon stepped in with new regulations. One of the largest spills was in Brooklyn, where a 17 million-gallon pool of oil gradually collected beneath a Mobil gas station — a larger spill than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, when a tanker ran aground in Alaska and poured oil into Prince William Sound.

Fast-forward to today, and more than half a million leaks have been confirmed around the country. The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2007 that the total bill for cleanups would top $22 billion. Those old, decrepit storage tanks have left a legacy: overgrown, empty lots that real-estate developers don’t want to touch. Of the roughly 450,000 brownfields in the country, nearly half are contaminated by petroleum, much of it coming from old gas stations.

As the contamination from these spills lingers, underground storage tanks are becoming a problem again as the next generation of tanks — installed in a rush after the old steel ones started breaking — begin nearing the end of their 30-year warranties, when there’s broad consensus they are highly likely to leak. In Washington state, for instance, the average tank is about 29 years old. The tanks at the Arco station in North Seattle were replaced in 1990, soon after contamination was discovered, putting them a few years past the 30-year cutoff.

a gas station with a blue awning and chain link fence.Graffiti covers an abandoned gas station in Seattle. Grist / Jesse Nichols

Congress passed a series of amendments to the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act in the 1980s introducing federal regulations to find and prevent spills. The law mandated that owners of underground storage tanks demonstrate they can cover $1 million in damages from contamination, a requirement often met by buying insurance from private companies and special state cleanup funds. States are responsible for implementing the regulations, and take different approaches to enforcement, cleanup, and insurance.

But states are discovering that many private insurers, which have long hesitated to provide coverage, are even more reluctant as tanks get older. “I don’t think they’re super thrilled to insure them anymore,” said Cassandra Garcia, the deputy director of Washington state’s Pollution Liability Insurance Agency. “This isn’t generally the most profitable business line for them.”

If gas stations don’t have insurance, states can shut them down. This predicament prompted Washington state to adopt a new law this spring providing fully state-backed insurance for gas stations. But critics like Metz wonder whether stations need to be saved at all. With electric vehicles on the rise, Metz thinks that selling gasoline is a dying business. “The whole financial underpinnings of gas stations are starting to crumble,” Metz said.

Gas stations often bear the names of major oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron, but that doesn’t mean those companies actually own the stations. Usually, they supply the fuel to independent business owners who signed agreements to sell their products and pay royalties to use their branding. Back in the day, oil companies owned a lot of stations (and thus the tanks beneath them); today, the top five largest oil companies own about 1 percent of gas stations.

The number of stations overall has been in decline for decades thanks to mediocre profits, rising land values in cities, and more fuel-efficient cars. An analysis from Boston Consulting Group found that between 25 and 80 percent of gas stations nationwide could be unprofitable in 12 years — and that analysis was conducted in 2019, before a slate of new policies, including federal tax credits, were passed to promote electric vehicles. Under vehicle-emissions rules unveiled by the Biden administration in April, EVs would make up as much as two-thirds of all U.S. car sales by 2031. Last year, Washington state set a target of ending the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2030, just seven years away; it has also adopted California’s stricter deadline of 2035, along with five other states.

That shift could lead to a pileup of vacant gas stations that the existing cleanup programs won’t be able to handle. There are more than 145,000 fueling stations in the U.S., according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. Even if the country manages to break off its century-long attachment to gasoline, the fuel’s legacy may live on in the soil and water. The question of who pays to clean up the contamination is a mess in itself: In theory, station owners are supposed to pick up the tab, but sometimes they’re unable to pay — or unable to be found — when the bill comes due. So then, who pays? Sometimes it’s an insurance company, sometimes it’s an oil company, and sometimes it’s the government. It’s up to lawyers and courts to hash it out.

“This is a huge problem nationally,” Metz said. “It’s all over the country. There are all these abandoned gas stations, and it’s just going to get worse.”

Behind just about every environmental program in the United States is an environmental disaster that brought it into being, and leaking gas stations are no exception. In this case, the disaster became public in December 1983, when a 60 Minutes segment warned Americans that underground storage tanks were a “time bomb” in their neighborhoods. The show documented the daily struggles of families in a small Rhode Island town whose drinking water had long been contaminated by Mobil and Exxon stations uphill. With 2 or 3 of every 10 gas stations in the country leaking, the show’s host, Harry Reasoner, told viewers that it promised to be the pollution disaster of the 1980s.

The catastrophe was set in motion in the years after World War II, when many Americans bought cars and moved to the suburbs, spurring demand for gasoline. Oil companies helped build hundreds of thousands of gas stations around the country and installed steel storage tanks beneath them. But those steel tanks and piping, exposed to soil, corroded over time, and petroleum began seeping through cracks and holes, carrying carcinogens into the groundwater.

The petroleum industry knew the risks. In 1961, advertisements in the trade magazine National Petroleum News acknowledged that “rusty, leaky storage tanks” were a problem. The pipes that connected tanks to the pumps were prone to breaking, too. In 1962, a B.F. Goodrich ad touting flexible connectors warned that “the settling or shifting of underground storage tanks can cause pipelines to crack, leak, and break apart.”

Three ads from the National Petroleum News trade journalAds from the National Petroleum News trade journal ranging from 1962 to 1972. National Petroleum News Archive

Within a few years, safer fiberglass tanks emerged as a substitute, though the steel industry later argued that the fiberglass couldn’t handle the alcohol-blended fuels that were being used. Manufacturers started offering leak detectors, promising that the technology could help stave off lawsuits and bad press. “With Red Jacket Leak Detectors, you’ll probably never have to reckon with contamination from piping leak losses … litigation and bad publicity … unhappy dealers … or even disaster,” read an advertisement in 1972.

By the early 1970s, oil companies were well aware that the tanks they owned beneath gas stations posed a huge liability. “Large sums of money, time, and effort are exhausted on a continuing basis in the location and detection of leaking tanks and lines,” a report from Exxon said in 1973.

The realization came at a time when public concern over pollution was taking off. In 1969, floating debris caught fire in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, sending flames five stories high, and a drilling accident near Santa Barbara, California, spread an oil slick over more than 800 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. The modern environmental movement was born a year later, when some 20 million Americans demonstrated on the first Earth Day in April 1970. The protests led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a slew of regulations to protect the air and water.

For companies selling gasoline, it was a worrying development. “The oil companies started to realize that they could be liable for a lot of environmental harm caused by these little gas stations,” said Peter Lehner, who investigated underground storage tank leaks for the Natural Resources Defense Council as well as the New York attorney general’s office in the late 1990s.

Oil giants found ways to unload some of that risk. In a lawsuit brought by residents of West Point, Indiana, against Shell in 1993, the oil company admitted that it began replacing steel tanks with fiberglass ones at the stations that it owned in the mid-1970s — but not at independently owned stations that sold Shell gasoline and touted its brand, according to court documents. The company adopted a policy that independent dealers were “on their own” when it came to technical advice or leaks from tanks, and refused to allow them to attend the company’s “tank camp” that provided intensive training on handling the equipment, the plaintiffs’ lawyers alleged in a court brief. They argued that the strategy saved thousands of dollars per station and noted a trial court had found that “the oil companies used their purported independence as a shield against liability.”

Shell ended up losing the case after the Indiana Supreme Court held it legally responsible for tanks that had leaked at a station that it operated but never owned, ordering the company to pay millions in cleanup costs and attorneys’ fees.

a black and white photo of firemen hosing off a gas station near a pumpIn a photo from 1979, firefighters clean up gasoline that spilled when an underground storage tank at a Texaco service station in Aurora, Colorado, was being filled from a tanker. The problem was apparently due to an improper fitting on a hose, resulting in an 825-gallon spill. Glen Martin / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Another tactic was to sell stations — along with the liability for underground tanks — to new owners. The purchase and sale agreements for gas stations often contained a clause that indemnified the oil company for all harm caused by a leak, regardless of whether they were at fault, leaving the new owner responsible for the costs. An undated contract from Texaco, for instance, spells out that the purchaser would agree “to maintain all storage facilities” to prevent spills and “indemnify Seller for all claims, fines and expenses relating thereto.”

“I have talked to several gas station owners that have purchased gas stations from Big Oil,” said Ryan Bixby, the managing principal at the environmental consulting firm SoundEarth, who oversees cleanups in Washington state. “I think that some of the property owners really didn’t understand what they were getting into when they released that liability.”

Oil companies knew that gasoline posed a major health threat. In Rockaway, New Jersey, in 1980, a Shell scientist found that seven plumes were leaking from underground storage tanks, contaminating the groundwater with gasoline and methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE — a common gasoline additive that posed health risks and was particularly difficult to clean up. At Shell, an internal joke circulated that MTBE stood for “Most Things Biodegrade Easier”; later iterations of the acronym included entries like “Menace Threatening Our Bountiful Environment” and “Major Threat to Better Earnings.” In 1981, Arco noted in a memo that tanks were polluting the U.S. water supply with toxic chemicals such as benzene.

Leaking tanks went from a source of private hand-wringing to a public scandal in 1983, the year the 60 Minutes segment ran. The New York Times reported that millions of gallons of gasoline were seeping from storage tanks each year. Congress soon moved to protect groundwater supplies. Within a year, it had formed a national underground tank program and directed the EPA to develop a regulatory system to prevent and detect leaks and clean up tanks.

By 1985, the industry’s concern over regulations and liability had reached a fever pitch. National Petroleum News reported that “the day of reckoning” was nearly at hand, with tank leak liability giving “equipment distributors and oil marketers the cold sweats.”

That year, California created its own underground tank regulations, sending the oil industry into shock. In response, the oil company Unocal sent California dealers who were leasing its stations special legal agreements asking them to pay for inspection costs. “[Major oil companies] could also try to make lessees pay for repairs, registration fees and damages associated with leaks,” U.S. Oil Week reported, noting that Chevron was already pushing maintenance and insurance costs for leak-prone tanks onto its independent dealers.

a large cylinder gas storage tank is lowered into a pit by a craneDouble-walled, fiberglass storage tanks are prepared and lowered onto a gravel bed at a gas station site, circa June 1985 in Los Angeles. Bob Riha, Jr. / Getty Images

Another response to impending regulations was to lobby allies in Congress. Representative Billy Tauzin, a Democrat from Louisiana with heavy campaign funding from oil companies, proposed limiting liability for the owners and operators of leaking tanks to $3 million. Critics labeled the proposed bill the “Exxon Relief Act.” Tauzin also tried to codify a loophole allowing oil companies to be absolved of financial responsibility for leaks simply by selling off tanks to gas station owners. But that failed when Congress took another step and passed an amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1986, which held that no owner or operator of an underground storage tank could transfer that liability to someone else.

Regardless, gas station owners were facing another financial problem. Private insurers, being in the business of making money instead of losing it, began dropping out of their pollution liability contracts or rewriting them to exclude coverage for tanks in 1986. For some insurance companies, it was already too late — some went bankrupt from the soaring costs of covering pollution from gas stations, said Alexandra Kleeman, an attorney in Seattle who helps people buy and sell contaminated properties.

That left gas station owners in a tight spot. “The insurance companies seem to be conspiring to avoid the risk entirely by all dropping the pollution coverages at the same time,” read a newsletter from the Southern California Service Station Association in 1985. The association argued that small gas station owners had been left in a “catch-22,” forced to provide financial responsibility for tanks with “no means of doing so.” The situation led states to set up programs, such as Washington’s Pollution Liability Insurance Agency, to help gas station owners meet the financial requirement.

The EPA devised more fully fleshed out regulations for underground storage tanks in 1988, requiring that they have devices to prevent spills and corrosion on any metal parts. Gas station owners were given 10 years to upgrade their tanks or install ones that met the new standards. Mom-and-pop stations were not well-equipped to do so, and many were forced out of business after the 1999 deadline.

Hoping to make oil companies pay for groundwater pollution, local residents turned to litigation in the mid-1990s. A lawyer named Scott Summy was winning lawsuits against oil companies all around the country, arguing that oil companies knew that MTBE-laced gasoline would spread far and wide, contaminating drinking water supplies. Over the years, Summy won more than $1 billion in settlements for residents and public water providers.

With a fleet of upgraded and newly replaced tanks in the ground, and at least some justice served, underground storage tanks soon faded from national attention. Behind the scenes, however, some states quietly shifted the cleanup costs from polluters to taxpayers.

a large broken storage tank covered in dirt being held up by construction equipmentWorkers remove an underground tank from a gas station. Nycshooter via Getty Images

In Indiana, for example, taxpayers spent more than $21 million decontaminating gas stations owned by former Vice President Mike Pence’s family after their company, Kiel Bros. Oil Co., went bankrupt in 2004. “Indiana has been especially amenable to using public money to pay for heavily contaminated soil to be excavated and for high-powered pumps to suck toxic liquid and vapor from the soil,” the Associated Press reported in 2018.

Arizona shifted the primary responsibility for cleanups from tank owners to taxpayers in 2004, an investigation by the Arizona Republic found. From 2011 to 2013, almost $45 million in taxpayer dollars was spent cleaning up leaks and spills from gas stations in the state because gas station owners were unable to pay the bill. At the time, more than one-third of gas station owners in the state had no financial coverage for their tanks, despite legal requirements.

The same story played out in Tennessee, too, according to reporting by the Tennessean. In 2016, the newspaper found that the state’s residents were footing 90 percent of the bill for cleanups. By 2021, the oil industry’s environmental fees that fed the state’s remediation fund had been eliminated entirely, while taxpayers were paying roughly $14 million each year through a tax on gasoline.

Anyone filling up their tank in the United States pays a 0.1 cent tax on each gallon of fuel that goes into the EPA’s trust fund for cleaning up leaking tanks, created in 1986 to pay for remediation when no viable owner could be found. More than $1.3 billion is sitting in the fund right now; last fiscal year, $67 million of it went toward remediating spills.

Depending on who you’re talking to, the subject of underground storage tanks either elicits warnings of an impending disaster or praise as one of the country’s overlooked success stories.

Federal officials point to the hundreds of thousands of sites that have been remediated over the past 40 years. Last March, the EPA announced that it had reached the “significant milestone” of cleaning up more than 500,000 underground storage tank leaks.

The federal regulations put in place in the 1980s — such as banning bare steel tanks and requiring spill-protection equipment — have prevented countless disasters. New technology has emerged that helps detect problems sooner, with some detection systems able to find a leak by monitoring vapor, said Bixby of SoundEarth. That’s a more reliable way than the old “dipstick” method in which a worker manually dips a long pole into a tank to measure fuel levels, a practice that can eventually wear a hole in the bottom of the tank. Newer tanks also come with two walls and monitors that can detect when petroleum slips through the first wall of defense.

In Washington state, the Department of Ecology is finding fewer leaks. Back in 1990, it discovered 900 leaks a year; since 2016, the number has hovered around 30.

An ARCO gas station with pumpsAn Arco gas station pictured next to an apartment building in Seattle. Grist / Jesse Nichols

Brand-new tanks are fairly reliable when maintained and monitored correctly, experts told Grist — but these aren’t the ones environmental advocates are worried about. The aging tanks installed at the beginning of the 1990s were “still pretty rudimentary,” Bixby said. Many of these older systems, especially the sumps, weren’t designed to handle the corrosive mix of gasoline and ethanol sold in the United States. On top of that, only 57 percent of underground storage tanks in the country meet all federal requirements to prevent and detect leaks. In Washington state, just over half are in compliance with federal rules, according to the most recent EPA data from this spring. That means that at least 600 fail to meet safety standards.

“Failing to meet regulatory requirements increases the risk of a release, and/or reduces the chance that a release will be quickly discovered,” a spokesperson for the EPA said in a statement to Grist. States have a variety of tools to enforce the requirements, including fines and the ability to prevent gas stations from having more fuel delivered, the EPA said. But the fact that such a large share of gas station owners aren’t following the rules suggests that states are wary of making such moves.

Kleeman, the environmental attorney in Seattle, thought that one reason Washington state wasn’t cracking down was because it had other environmental priorities, such as climate change. “We do have a crazy number of impacted sites for being so green, but I wouldn’t say that abandoned gas stations or contaminated gas station sites are really that big of a concern,” she said. “On the scale of things that are probably keeping Governor [Jay] Inslee up at night, it’s not, you know, the big issue.”

Dangerous spills are still turning up across the country. In Monmouth, Oregon, a small town outside the capital of Salem, a 76 gas station spilled 14,000 gallons of gasoline into nearby groundwater in April 2021. The leak, discovered when workers at a sewage treatment plant a mile away noticed the scent of gasoline, was caused by a line failure at the top of an underground storage tank. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that if somebody had lit a match at the wrong time, people would have died,” said a state official who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “The vapor from that escaped fuel was definitely above the ignitability threshold.”

It’s hardly an isolated anecdote. In Provo, Utah, 55,000 gallons of gasoline escaped from a storage tank into the soil and groundwater in March 2018; the state’s environmental department called the incident “catastrophic.” In Lily Lake, Illinois, a rural town outside Chicago, a Shell gas station under construction spilled nearly 8,000 gallons of gasoline after heavy rain flooded tanks last April, sending petroleum into a nearby wetland. And in November last year, a gas station in Bloomington, Indiana, spilled several thousand gallons of fuel due to a leak in the storage tank or piping.

Washington state has the sixth-biggest backlog of leaking underground storage tanks, behind Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, according to the EPA. Long waiting lists aren’t necessarily signs of indifference. They can be a result of stringent groundwater standards or geography. West of the Cascade mountains in Washington, high groundwater levels can cause leaked gasoline to spread further.

Barry Rogowski, the program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology’s toxic cleanup program, said that underground storage tanks are one of his agency’s priorities. Over 4,000 sites have been cleared by the state, with some 2,500 to go. A lot of the remaining contamination is hard to reach — with contaminated water sitting under, say, a railroad track or major roadway — and requires additional resources, Rogowski said. The Department of Ecology recently hired six staffers to help with tasks like sampling and site assessments to chip away at the backlog.

The reluctance of private insurers to cover aging tanks left Washington looking for new options. Under a longstanding program, private insurers provide $75,000 of the total $1 million of insurance for the tanks, with the state backing the rest. But if insurance companies decided to back out of the reinsurance program entirely, as some officials feared they might, the Department of Ecology would have to go around shutting down gas stations that no longer complied with the law, according to Garcia of the state’s Pollution Liability Insurance Agency.

So this year, Garcia’s agency worked with state legislators to pass a bill, HB1175, implementing a new system. For each gas station that enters the new program, the state will cover $1 million for old leaks and $2 million for future ones. The funding comes from a small tax on oil companies when selling their products in the state — which is increasing from 0.15 percent to 0.3 percent — along with premiums from gas station owners. Garcia said that the new approach gives the state more control over gas station cleanups by taking out “the insurance middleman.” Governor Inslee signed the law in April.

Critics of the law, such as Metz — the anti-gasoline advocate — called it a “bailout” of a dying industry. He sees gas stations as a link in a long supply chain that originates in the oil fields and ends with carbon pollution spewing from tailpipes. The transportation system has become the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, much of which comes from vehicles pumped full of gasoline and diesel at the pump.

a bald man with sunglasses in front of an ARCO stationMatthew Metz, the founder of the nonprofit Coltura, walks in front of a gas station in Seattle. Grist / Jesse Nichols

Some environmental advocates are skeptical that the new policy will cover all the costs. “If we have 2,000 tanks that need to be cleaned up, that’s basically a billion-dollar liability,” said Clif Swiggett, who leads policy analysis at Carbon Washington, a climate policy nonprofit. “So that’s a huge amount of costs that’s about to come over the horizon. … These gas stations are going to go out of business, and in a big wave, if we successfully electrify transportation.”

One of Metz’s complaints with the legislation is that it doesn’t prioritize prevention. When asked which states had done a good job preventing spills, the EPA pointed to Colorado, which has spent the past several years using its petroleum industry-funded cleanup money not just to address leaks, but to stop them from happening in the first place. Mahesh Albuquerque, the director of Colorado’s Division of Oil and Public Safety, said the state rewards gas station owners for removing their tanks by offering $1 for every gallon removed, up to $30,000. The thinking is that better equipment (and fewer tanks) could save the state money in the long run by cutting down on remediation costs.

Colorado has spent $4.3 million on these kinds of incentives over the last two decades, and its tank-removal reimbursement program has helped take nearly 500 old tanks out of the ground, Albuquerque said. The average age of an underground storage tank in Colorado was roughly 27 years when the program started in 2019, in line with the national average calculated by the EPA at the time; today, Colorado’s average is down to about 25 years. (The EPA does not maintain current data on the average age of tanks, a spokesperson told Grist.)

“The benefit has been huge for our state, where it’s incentivized owners to actually be a little more proactive,” Albuquerque said. “The focus needs to be on prevention rather than cleanup.”

The approach has resulted in more gas stations adhering to federal standards. In Colorado, 93 percent of gas stations are in compliance with the EPA’s rules for preventing leaks, the second-highest compliance among states after Wyoming. Gas station owners who fail to follow these standards face consequences: In the event of a leak, owners are eligible for $2 million in reimbursement for cleanup costs from the state — but how much they get reimbursed depends on their track record of meeting the guidelines. The state might cover only 75 percent of the costs for an owner who violated the rules, for example, or deny all reimbursements for particularly egregious violations, Albuquerque said.

Even with these measures in place, new leaks continue to be discovered in Colorado, running the state about $37 million in cleanup costs every year.

Electric vehicles could well be the biggest shift in American transportation since cars replaced horses. But what happens to gas stations — and the tanks beneath them — when hardly anyone needs gasoline anymore?

Looking at an abandoned gas station today gives you a preview of what might be coming. At the Bigfoot gas station in North Seattle, unleaded gas is priced at $2.69 — one indication it’s been closed for a few years, along with the graffiti covering the building. When I visited the site in March, a biker zooming by craned his neck to call out, “Check out that sinkhole!” A chain-link fence guarded a cavernous hole in the ground by the old gas pumps, concrete breaking off around its edges. At the tiny, pink cannoli stand next door, a barista waited at the window, looking on at the forlorn facility.

a sign outside of a gas stationA sign stands over the shuttered Bigfoot gas station and car wash in Seattle, Washington. Grist / Jesse Nichols

The common-sense solution for the future of gas stations is to turn them into EV charging stations. But the convenience store model might not translate. Most people charge their vehicles at home. Road-trippers require fast-charging stations along the highway. Public parking lots are a good place for chargers, but running into a convenience store to buy peanut M&Ms doesn’t take more than five minutes or so, not long enough to get much juice from even the fastest chargers. People might prefer to charge up while running longer errands, like grocery shopping. Walmart, for example, recently announced it would install thousands of chargers at stores around the country.

In theory, a gas station lot could turn into anything. But developers are reluctant to take on contaminated lots. The process of excavation might unearth complications, such as an old tank that no one realized was there, or contamination that went undetected in the initial inspection process. “You often don’t find these impacts until much, much later,” Bixby said.

Developers hesitate to get involved with a contaminated property, but if they do, they can push the cleanup process forward. “It’s rare that a landowner just says, ‘Oh, well, I’m aware of the contamination, it’s on my property, it’s my responsibility, so I will clean it up,’” Bixby said. “It’s more common that that cleanup happens when somebody is interested in buying the property and a lender says, ‘Well, that’s great, but I’m not going to loan you any money on it until your property is clean.’”

Bixby recently finished cleaning up a property in the Rainier Valley in South Seattle that had been contaminated for more than a decade. Property transactions kept falling through until a developer came along who wanted to put in below-grade parking. That made it easier to sell, because it cut down on the costs of hauling in new soil: A contaminated site generally requires digging up the dirt, trucking away the contaminated soil, and backfilling the giant hole.

In that case, the big oil company that was responsible for the contamination settled a case for $1.8 million, Bixby said. The total cost of the cleanup was even higher. It’s common for oil companies to settle cases long before they get to court. That’s because if the case goes to trial, the polluter may not only have to cover the cleanup costs, but also the plaintiff’s attorney fees, which can be almost as high, Bixby said.

Some abandoned gas stations have ended up with a more creative future, but even those come with headaches. A group of artists recently converted an abandoned gas station in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, across from Boeing Field, into a community center and art museum called Mini Mart City Park. It took 15 years of environmental studies and soil cleanup, with the project totaling close to $2.3 million.

Given the toxic legacy of gas stations, some communities have begun pushing back against their development. Two years ago, Petaluma, California, became the first town in the country to ban new gas stations, following its declaration of a “climate emergency” in 2019. In March, Sonoma County prohibited their construction. Even famously car-centric Los Angeles has considered a similar ban.

For Beth Doglio, one of the Democratic state representatives who introduced HB1175, seeing new gas stations has become a source of frustration. “The energy right now to fuel our vehicles is this totally toxic, gross shit that’s underground,” Doglio said. Getting rid of the storage tank problem is a benefit of going electric that hardly anyone thinks about, she said.

“It’s not going to cost a fortune, $1 million, to fix a charging station. It’s kind of exciting. That, to me, was like, ‘Oh, wow, here’s yet another benefit of the clean energy transition.’”

This article originally appeared in Grist. Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at

The laws that took down mobsters are now being turned against Big Oil

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The flood-prone city of Hoboken, New Jersey, sued Exxon, Chevron, and other oil companies three years ago, hoping to put them on trial for deceiving the public. Like other lawsuits set in motion by “Exxon Knew” investigations, Hoboken made the case that they breached state consumer protection laws by hiding the risks of burning fossil fuels.

But the lawsuit recently took a novel twist. Hoboken’s lawyers amended the complaint in late April, alleging that Big Oil had violated the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, as first reported by the accountability site ExxonKnews. New Jersey’s statute is modeled after a federal RICO law passed in 1970 designed to take down organized crime. These racketeering lawsuits aren’t just for the Mafia anymore; they’ve also been successful against tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, and pharmaceutical executives tied to the opioid epidemic.

It could be the start of a new wave of climate lawsuits, said Korey Silverman-Roati, a fellow at Columbia Law School. Thirty-three states and two U.S. territories have RICO laws, and judgments in these cases can award plaintiffs triple the damages. The use of RICO is another sign that cities and states are trying to learn from “the successes and failures of the tobacco litigation movement and the opioid litigation movement,” Silverman-Roati said.

It’s already proving to be a big year for climate court cases. Last month, the Supreme Court rejected petitions from Chevron, Shell, BP, and other companies in many cases filed by cities and states, unleashing lawsuits to proceed in state courts that had been stuck in limbo for years. This week, the court also allowed Hoboken’s case to move forward, potentially toward a jury trial. The city aims to make the oil giants pay hundreds of millions of dollars for updating local infrastructure to withstand stronger storms, rising seas, and other effects of climate change.

Hoboken’s lawsuit is the second to argue that Big Oil colluded in a “fraudulent scheme” to conceal how their products contribute to climate change. In November, cities across Puerto Rico accused Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies of violating the federal RICO law. The towns seek to make companies pay billions of dollars for the extensive damages suffered during hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.

Both lawsuits argue that evidence of a conspiracy traces back to 1989, just as governments around the world started talking about reining in global warming. That year, ExxonMobil, Shell, and the industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, helped form a group to block climate action audaciously named the Global Climate Coalition. Even though these companies had privately understood the risks of climate change for decades, they developed a robust public relations campaign that cast doubt on the science. The corporate coalition lobbied politicians, reviewed international climate science reports, and gave the industry a voice in global climate negotiations.

The latest lawsuits also point to the American Petroleum Institute’s creation of a front group called “Global Climate Science Communications Team” in 1998, mirroring the tobacco industry’s efforts to discredit the science that linked cigarette smoke to cancer. (The oil industry’s “science” team did not include a single scientist.) It had the stated goal of getting a majority of Americans to recognize “that significant uncertainties exist in climate science,” declaring that “victory will be achieved” when uncertainty became part of the “conventional wisdom.”

“They’ve made it easy to prove,” Melissa Sims, an attorney at Milberg, the Tennessee-based law firm representing the Puerto Rican cities, told Grist earlier this year, “because unlike all the other racketeering cases that have been on file, none of them included a written battle plan with a detailed division of labor on how they were going to accomplish their deception.”

In response, oil companies say that courtrooms aren’t the right place to address the big question of climate change. After Puerto Rico’s suit was filed, a lawyer for Chevron told Reuters said it was “a baseless distraction from the serious challenge of global climate change, not an attempt to find an effective solution.” An Exxon spokesperson said that these kinds of cases “waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money.”

Hoboken, on the other hand, says that the campaign of deception that started 40 years ago never stopped. Today, advertisements showcasing oil companies’ clean energy ventures “dupe consumers into believing that they are committed to addressing climate change,” the city’s complaint says.

Both RICO lawsuits highlight “this decades-long pattern of fossil fuel companies knowing that their products are harmful, deceptively marketing them to the public as safe, and then public communities being on the hook for huge sums to pay for those harms,” Silverman-Roati said. “It’s really a way of underlining that pattern aspect of the behavior, the conspiratorial aspect of the behavior, and tying that to criminal violations like fraud.”

This article originally appeared in Grist at

Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at

Walmart just illustrated how mainstream electric vehicles are now

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In the latest sign that corporate behemoths are getting behind the shift to electric vehicles, Walmart announced on Thursday that it would install fast-charging stations at thousands of locations around the country. The rollout would quadruple the company’s network of charging stations, currently available at more than 280 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores.

Walmart’s move could help allay a common concern about buying an electric car — range anxiety, the fear of getting stranded with a dead battery and no chargers in sight.

“We’ve got a Walmart store or Sam’s Club within 10 miles of 90 percent of the population in this country,” Vishal Kapadia, the company’s senior vice president of energy transformation, told the Washington Post. “We know we can address range anxiety in a way that no one else can.”

Seen as a pipe dream not long ago, the shift to electric vehicles is finally becoming a concrete reality. This year, the United States hit the milestone of 3 million electric vehicles on the road. That’s only about 1 percent of America’s vehicles, but sales are growing fast, with EVs making up 7 percent of new vehicle registrations in January, almost double the year before.

New laws and recent business pivots are nudging electric vehicles further into the mainstream. President Joe Biden plans to build a national network of 500,000 charging stations by 2030, with the government recently allocating $7.5 billion to that effort. California has banned the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, with at least a half-dozen other states following along. On the business side, automakers are going all in on the trend — albeit in the American tradition of oversized trucks and SUVs. With Walmart adding chargers nationwide, the country’s largest retailer is now on board, too. After a century, the internal combustion engine’s century-long grip on the country is beginning to look shaky.

The adoption of electric vehicles has long been plagued by worries that they won’t be able to meet people’s everyday driving needs. A study last spring, for example, found that people underestimated how many daily tasks electric vehicles could fulfill by as much as 30 percent. Perhaps in response to those concerns, automakers have been churning out cars with longer ranges. Ram recently announced that its upcoming electric pickup, the Ram 1500 REV, will carry a battery option that can go 500 miles on a single charge — roughly enough for an eight-hour road trip.

The sticker shock of buying an electric car has also been a hindrance to sales. But Tesla, which controls about two-thirds of the EV market in the United States, slashed its prices in January, pressuring its rivals to follow suit. The Model Y, for example, went from $65,990 to $52,990, a 20 percent drop, and the company has said it will prioritize affordability in its next generation of vehicles. Mass-market electric vehicles could become as cheap as gasoline-powered cars this year, according to the New York Times. That’s partly thanks to subsidies and tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate legislation that Biden signed last year. For people buying new EVs, the IRA offers up to a $7,500 tax credit; this week, Ford announced that its whole lineup of EVs are eligible for either half or all of that credit.

One indicator that Americans are starting to get comfortable with electric cars is that they are becoming less polarizing. In the first decade of the 2000s, the hybrid Toyota Prius, became a cultural flashpoint, after it became associated with a moralizing brand of environmentalism. Fast-forward to last spring, and America’s long-time bestselling vehicle and a Republican favorite — the Ford F-150 pickup truck — went all electric, with a waitlist three years long at the time of its release. The IRA may also help change the political calculus by sending billions of dollars flowing into EV and battery factories in red states such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Georgia.

To be sure, some Republicans are still dead-set against electric-powered cars. But up against Walmart, Ford, and billions in green investment, it’s hard to imagine that they could stop the growing momentum behind electric vehicles.

Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at

How Washington state raised $300 million for climate action from polluters

This article originally appeared in Grist.

A new effort to tackle climate change in Washington state just got a boost of cash.

On Tuesday, the state announced the results of its first “cap-and-invest” auction. It raised an estimated $300 million from polluting companies to fund projects such as building clean energy, reducing emissions from buildings and transportation, and adapting to the effects of rising global temperatures.

Washington has set a goal to cut its carbon emissions 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In that effort, the state is putting a statewide limit on carbon emissions that gradually lowers over time. Under the cap-and-invest system, businesses buy “allowances” for the greenhouse gases they emit. But these permits will become more expensive over time — both an incentive to cut emissions and a method of raising money to address climate change.

In Washington’s first auction, held last week, the permits sold out, averaging about $49 per ton of carbon dioxide. The price was nearly double that of the most recent cap-and-trade auction held by California and Quebec, where the average was $28 per ton.

“The auction price is potentially higher because Washington’s program requires stronger climate pollution cuts than anywhere else in the country,” said Kelly Hall, the Washington director for the regional nonprofit Climate Solutions. “There is strong competition for these allowances.”

Washington’s auctions, which will take place four times a year, are projected to raise nearly $1 billion annually. At least 35 percent of the revenue is slated to go toward projects that benefit communities historically and disproportionately impacted by pollution. By the end of April, once the budgeting process is ironed out, the state will begin the process of setting up these various climate initiatives, said David Mendoza, the director of public engagement and policy at The Nature Conservancy in Washington.

The state’s cap-and-invest system, which began in January, follows in the footsteps of several state and regional cap-and-trade systems — with a few key changes. It relies less on carbon offsets and is also designed to address some equity concerns around cap-and-trade. In California, for example, studies have shown that pollution in Black and Latino communities actually increased in the years since that state’s cap-and-trade program began.

Washington’s system takes the novel approach of pairing cap-and-trade with a regulatory air quality program intended to crack down on large and small sources of pollution in the hardest-hit areas. While the state is still figuring out the details, last week, its Department of Ecology announced that it had identified 16 communities where it plans to concentrate efforts to improve air quality. South Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane made the list, as did some rural areas.

Cap-and-trade programs are now up and running in more than a dozen U.S. states, including Oregon and a regional program in the Northeast. Still, the approach remains controversial. Washington’s program has gathered criticism for giving some large emitters, such as petroleum refineries and paper mills, a free pass. While these polluters can buy allowances at little or no cost for the next dozen years, they are still covered under the program’s declining cap on emissions.

The state is currently looking into linking up its cap-and-trade program with California and Quebec, which have already joined markets. In Washington, there’s a requirement that they can only link the markets if the state determines that it won’t result in a “negative impact on overburdened communities in either jurisdiction,” Mendoza said.

After researching the potential benefits — and consequences — of linking the programs, the state is expected to issue a recommendation on whether to join California’s market by the end of summer.

Grist is a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Learn more at