SALEM — Oregon is one of only two states where drivers aren’t allowed to pump their own gas, but lawmakers appear ready to allow people cruising through rural areas — including Clatsop County — to serve themselves.
That would leave New Jersey as the last holdout with statewide restrictions. Oregon’s not ready to completely jettison its 64-year-old ban, but concerns that travelers could get stranded in places with few gas stations open in the middle of the night may bring self-service pumps to vast expanses of the state.
Parts of Oregon are so remote that people unfamiliar with the landscape don’t realize hundreds of miles separate gas stations, said Rep. Cliff Bentz, sponsor of a bill that would let gas stations offer self-service fuel when there isn’t an owner, operator or employee around.
Rural businesses in the middle of nowhere can’t afford to keep someone manning the pumps 24 hours a day, said Bentz, a Republican from Ontario, a city near the Idaho border.
“You go around eastern Oregon counties, you find more and more situations where there isn’t any fuel. and it’s not unlike the situation electric-car owners find themselves in now,” Bentz said.
Bentz’s bill sailed through the House on a bipartisan 60-0 vote. It’s now awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate.
The measure is limited to counties where there are fewer than 40,000 residents. That accounts for half of Oregon’s counties and almost all of eastern Oregon. Clatsop County’s current estimated population is about 37,500.
Oregonians have rebuffed every attempt to overturn the ban on self-service gas since it was instituted, including a ballot measure they rejected in 1982 that would have legalized self-service pumps. The opposition has been so strong that legislators haven’t introduced a measure to overturn the ban since 2003.
New Jersey has stuck with its restrictions, too. In 2011, Gov. Chris Christie said he wouldn’t support legislation for self-service gasoline because most residents don’t want it, despite proposing self-serve gas while campaigning for governor in 2009.
Oregon’s ban lists 17 motives. Among them, self-service “discriminates against customers who are elderly or have disabilities who are unable to serve themselves,” and it could create a “dangerous situation” for unattended children.
“In Oregon, the first reason that the law gives to ban self-service gas in effect is, ‘You will set yourself on fire,’” said Steve Buckstein, co-founder of the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank.
These days, the arguments against self-service are mainly that full-service stations create jobs and make life more convenient by letting drivers stay in their vehicles.
Bentz said owners and operators of rural gas stations asked him to introduce HB 3011 this year.
If it’s a frosty winter’s night and the needle on the fuel gauge is nudging empty, drivers in rural Oregon may grow desperate when, after driving hours in search of a filling station, they find it empty and closed.
“Numerous times, I’ve been woken in the middle of the night by the sheriff’s dispatch because we have folks who follow their phones and aren’t very smart and don’t fill up till their gas lights are on,” said Tom Downs, who owns a gas station in southeastern Oregon.
“Out of the goodness of our hearts, we get up in the middle of the night and fuel them so they can get on their way,” he said.