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Diesel drives past ban on self-serve gas

Pump-your-own fuel not really a leak in state's 60-year law
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Who says Oregon doesn’t allow you to pump your own gas? All you need is a car or truck running on diesel, and the right gas station that allows, or in some cases requires you to pump your own, like the Hollywood Chevron on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 47th Avenue.

Back in 1951, Oregon gas station owners - trying to fend off big oil companies from taking over the filling station business - convinced the Oregon Legislature to bar people from pumping their own gas in the state.

Ever since, Oregonians have regarded the ability to sit on their behinds while a gas station attendant pumps their gas as a right of birth, second only to not paying sales tax.

But in recent months, more and more gas stations are adding diesel pumps and allowing, or even requiring, folks with diesel engines to pump their own gas.

Unbeknownst to many Oregonians, the state law doesn't ban people from pumping their own diesel gas, because diesel doesn't qualify as a Class I flammable liquid as specified in the statute.

California native Heidi Hardman, who moved here four years ago, says she's still instinctively getting out of her car to pump her own gas, only to be told 'ma'am, you can't do that.'

Then she and her husband bought a Volkswagen Jetta last year, and now she's regularly pumping her own diesel at the Hollywood Chevron on Sandy Boulevard and Northeast 47th Avenue.

'We can manage,' she said while pumping her own gas last week. 'It's about two seconds.'

And going outside the car to fill her tank during a Portland drizzle is nothing after enduring snowy weather in Boston.

'A little rain never hurt anybody,' Hardman says.

Darren Goff Sr. has been working in gas stations since he left high school nearly 32 years ago, and he can't count the number of times he's had to tell folks they can't pump their own gas because it's illegal in Oregon.

Then about a year and a half ago, he learned that it is legal to pump your own diesel, when the owner of the Hollywood Chevron that Goff manages installed the new diesel pump and self-service signage.

It's up to each gas station whether to allow customers to pump their own diesel, and under what terms.

An Internet blog for diesel car owners includes several posts from folks who pumped their own gas at Chevron and Shell stations in the Portland area, and elsewhere in Oregon.

Two state holdouts

Oregon and New Jersey are the only states that ban self-serve gas, both apparently due to pressure from gas station owners.

Sixty years ago, Oregon owners thought it would keep major oil companies from competing with them and dominating the retail side of the industry, says Paul Romain, a lobbyist who also serves as executive director of the Oregon Petroleum Association, the industry trade group. But the main rationale given was that gas was too flammable to let customers pump their own, Romain says. 'It's sort of a flimsy excuse,' he says.

The Oregon statute also stresses that self-serve-only stations can discriminate against people with disabilities and elderly customers, and expose motorists to toxic fumes, which could especially harm pregnant women. The law also mentions that self-serve-only stations wind up providing decreased car maintenance, and reduce the availability of auto repair shops.

During the years, organized labor has taken up the cause of defending the law, to prevent the loss of gas station attendant jobs.

Past attempts to overturn the ban on self-serve haven't gone far in the Oregon Legislature. A 1982 ballot initiative, backed by a major oil company, was handily rejected by voters.

Polls show attempts to overturn the ban won't get past voters, Romain says. Polls show a wide gap between men and women on the issue, he says. 'Women love the ban on self-serve; men want to pump their own gas, generally,' he says.

Gas station owners in the Oregon Petroleum Association are divided on the law, Romain says. Some heartily support it, while others, who tend to be in lower-traffic, rural areas, would prefer to overturn it, he says. As a result, his trade group doesn't have a position on the issue.

Goff says there does appear to be less of a safety issue with diesel, because it's not as flammable as gasoline. However, he does think having a ban on self-serve makes for safer operations at gas stations. Some people still emerge from their cars with their motors running with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, he says. Some people, even with the self-serve diesel, can put it in the wrong container.

'They try to put diesel in a kerosene can,' he says, and that's dangerous. Or they put it in a milk jug. 'You can't do that, because the gas eats right through it,' Goff says.

Motives unclear

Though more Portland gas station owners are adding self-serve diesel, the relatively new system doesn't seem to be attracting much attention. Goff says he sells only about 50 gallons of diesel a day at the Hollywood Chevron, to about two to three customers, on average.

The owner of the station couldn't be reached for comment, so it's not clear why he shifted to self-serve at two of his Portland gas stations, including one further east on Sandy.

Romain doubts the station owners are trying to shift public sentiment on a future ballot measure by demonstrating that self-serve is harmless. 'Self-serve works,' he says. 'You can look at 48 other states.'

It's unclear if the self-serve diesel is adding much business, at least at Hollywood Chevron. One reason may be that diesel car owners have to pump their own there; they don't have a choice. If they don't want to pump their own, they have to go to another station.

Hardman suspects it's a question of liability. Regular gasoline pump nozzles can fit into a diesel tank, and not vice versa. So there may be a fear that gas station attendants put gas into a diesel tank by mistake, and harm the car.

If people pump their own and do that, Romain says, 'They've screwed up their own engine.'