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What if we simply…stopped building new gas stations? That’s the gist of a new idea from Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz.
A ban? So serious! Even radical. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either brilliantly forward-thinking or outrageously irresponsible.
In reality, it’s probably neither. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math and I’ll explain why.
- The population of Los Angeles County has been hovering around 10 million people for the past decade. Projections show that trend will continue, or the population will increase very modestly.
- The population of the United States is only expected to grow about 20% over the next 40 years.
- There are 7,634,497 total vehicles registered in L.A. County. That number has been basically flat for the last five years. The seven million mark was broken back in 2004.
There’s really no demand for new gas stations. It seems the free market has known this for a long time:The number of gas stations in California increased by only 5% between 2010 and 2020, and the numbers have actually fallen slightly from their peak in 2016.
In other words, we’re already not building new gas stations. Koretz is offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The City Council is aware of this, of course, but argues that the phase out makes a statement about Los Angeles’ commitment to climate, which is undeniably world-leading.
But if the ban does accomplish one thing it’s opening the door to a discussion about what to do with these properties. So off we go.
So what would a bold political statement actually look like?
Let’s first examine how the demand for gas stations is expected to decrease over the next few decades as EVs become widespread—and then mandatory.
Since 2011, the percentage of new car sales that are battery EVs has risen from 0.5% to 12.8% in California, bringing the state to a total of 563,070 light-duty EVs on the road. Whether this equates to a 12% decline in demand for gasoline is a trickier question. But that should start to change rapidly as EV adoption continues to accelerate. With the state mandating that all new vehicle sales be electric by 2035, we can assume that by roughly 2050 nearly every car on the road will be electric, since the average lifespan of a new car is 8-12 years.
“We've been hearing for years that EVs are going to reach price parity with internal combustion engine vehicles in the next two or three years,” says Andy Shrader, director of environmental affairs, water policy and sustainability for Paul Koretz. “Once that happens, particularly with the high cost of gas, where is demand for gas cars gonna go? Probably in the toilet.”
Still, details from the Council for what’s going to happen to these properties remain scant.
For one thing, cleanup is going to be a major issue. Gas stations arenotorious ecological problems known as brownfields. According to the EPA, a brownfield is a site that may be difficult to expand, redevelop or reuse due to pollution or contamination.
“Of the estimated 450,000 brownfield sites in the U.S., approximately one-half are thought to be impacted by petroleum," the agency says, "much of it from leaking underground storage tanks (USTs) at old gas stations. These sites blight the surrounding neighborhoods and threaten human health and the environment.”
The city is weighing these exact issues and working on policy initiatives to ease the transition, Shrader says. Part of the problem, he adds, is that forecasting the rate of EV adoption is tricky: Supply chain constraints, changing economic incentives at the federal level and the larger macroeconomic climate are all throwing wrenches on both the supply and demand side, making it difficult to predict exactly how gasoline demand will be impacted.
“What is the curve of [EV adoption]?” asks Shrader. “We want to make sure that the arc of that transition meets demand, right? That's kind of the delicate balance we're trying to achieve.”
A seemingly obvious solution is to convert old gas stations into level 2 or level 3 fast charging stations, and many will surely go that route. But charging an EV takes significantly longer than filling up a gas tank (for now), and chargers may be more effective if they’re placed at offices, restaurants or retail areas.
People will also be able to charge at home, meaning the eventual demand for public recharging stations may be significantly lower than our current gas station needs. But, as Shrader notes, this creates its own issues.
“If people charge at their residences, then we've got the problem of increasing demand at a time when we've got less energy available from the sun,” he says. “We need to upgrade the whole electric power grid.”
No one ever said tackling climate change would be easy. While banning new gas stations probably doesn’t get us much closer to that goal, at least Los Angeles isn’t building more, or trying to ban EV charging stations unless they also offer gas. dot.LA will have more details for how the city manages this transition as they emerge.
“This is the beginning of a longer conversation,” says Shrader. “The motion directs city staff to figure out how the city can do this. The specific details will come in the staff report and the Council will react and give direction.” — David Shultz
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