Two B.C. cities soldier on with decades-old ban on self-serve gas pumps

Coquitlam and Richmond don’t let commuters pump their own gas

Two western Canadian cities that mandate gas stations employ attendants to pump fuel are outliers in a nation where most citizens are accustomed to do-it-yourself fill ups.

Richmond and Coquitlam, B.C., have prohibited self-service stations for decades and against multiple waves of industry pushback, including a recent salvo by Chevron Canada Ltd. for Coquitlam to revoke its regulation.

Their choice is once more in the spotlight as Oregon shifted this week to permit some gas stations to allow drivers to refuel their vehicles without assistance.

Oregon passed the bill, which took effect Jan. 1, in counties with populations of 40,000 or less — much to the chagrin of some locals, with those who vehemently oppose the change saying they don’t know how to pump gas, fear for their safety when doing so, or aren’t keen on smelling like fuel.

While many have mocked such responses on social media, Richmond and Coquitlam still believe there’s good reason to enforce full-service pumps in 2018.

Richmond adopted its bylaw in 1966 primarily due to the fire chief’s safety concerns, said spokesman Ted Townsend in an email.

“The principle objection to this type of service is the danger to life and property from fire due to lack of supervision by competent persons,” wrote then-fire chief R.J. Sowden in a letter to city officials dated Aug. 12, 1966.

He listed a number of potential dangers, including customers leaving motors running, smoking, under the influence of liquor, or driving off with the hose and nozzle left in the fill pipe.

At the time, some neighbouring municipalities had already passed by-laws outlawing self-service stations, according to a council report.

Coquitlam, which still enforces the rule, started to do so years earlier in 1959.

No official council records were found in city archives to explain why the restriction was adopted, according to a 2016 city document, but public correspondence suggests the move came partly to protect local employment.

Both cities have faced pressure over the years to revoke or ease the rule.

The Canadian Fuels Association, which represents the nation’s transportation fuels industry, has had discussions with each city in the past, said Rob Hoffman, the association’s director of government and stakeholder relations.

“We prefer for the market to decide, and the market has done a very good job of deciding that all over,” he said.

At the close of 2016, there were 11,931 retail gas stations in the country, according to Kent Group Ltd., a London, Ont.-based data, analytics and consulting firm for the downstream petroleum industry.

The firm collected service type data for about 81 per cent of those and found 76.7 per cent were self-service, 7.7 per cent split-service and 15.6 per cent full-service.

Recently, Chevron filed an application to amend Coquitlam’s bylaw and permit self-service stations.

That application is currently in process, said the city’s director of development services George Fujii in an email. The city is researching the benefits and drawbacks of their current model, Chevron’s request of moving to all self-service, or a split between the two, he said.

Staff will provide city council with a recommendation in a report expected later this quarter, he said, and council can choose whether or not to accept it.

Richmond’s bylaw has been reviewed multiple times, including in 1989 when council decided to keep the status quo to help protect youth employment.

More recently, in 2003, industry members argued the bylaw deters development of new and improved stations with additional amenities, like convenience stores, said Townsend.

Staff recommended amending the bylaw to allow adding split-serve stations, saying in a report that it “could have significant economic and community benefits,” as well as reduce crime and reduce hazardous emissions.

Council rejected the repeal, Townsend said, and there has been no direction to revisit the issue.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

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