After years of marginal reforms, a dire labor shortage, and dislocations from natural disasters and the pandemic, Oregon politicians have finally agreed to open up the entire state to self-service gas pumps.
This past week, the Oregon Senate passed H.B. 2426, which allows all gas stations to designate at least half their gas pumps as self-service, meaning motorists can opt into fueling their vehicles if they feel up to the challenge. It also ends the requirement that a gas station attendant physically hand motorcyclists the nozzle before they pump their gas.
The bill, approved by the Oregon House in March, now goes to Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, for approval.
For years, Oregon was one of two states in the union (New Jersey being the other) that mandated full-service gas stations—meaning an attendant was required to fuel most drivers' vehicles.
Supporters of the full-service mandate claim it's a productive job creation measure, a form of consumer protection, a necessary health and safety measure, and a valuable cultural quirk all rolled into one.
Reformers have therefore had to tread carefully when arguing that drivers and gas station owners deserve more freedom in their fueling relationship.
In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill that allowed self-service pumps at night in rural counties—where drivers occasionally end up stranded at rural gas stations that weren't open 24 hours. In 2017, they struck again with a law that allowed gas stations in those same counties to offer self-service pumps all hours of the day.
That was about as much change as the state could handle, however. A carefully calibrated reform bill floated in 2019 that would have let gas stations designate half their pumps as self-service stalled out in the legislature.
The emergency conditions created by the pandemic produced some temporary relief from the mandate. In March 2020, the Oregon Fire Marshall—who enforces the full-service mandate—issued a temporary two-month suspension of the full-service mandate. It came with several asterisks:
Most gas stations still had to have an attendant to enforce social distancing, for instance. Only gas stations open 10 hours per day with posted signs explaining proper fuel pump handling could get rid of their attendant. These stations would also have to document that there are no employees available to watch over drivers gassing up and prove that they've gone through a State Fire Marshal audit.
This suspension of the full-service mandate ended in May, but the temporary deregulation seems to have shifted the Overton Window on whether adults trusted with operating a motor vehicle could gas up on their own too.
The Oregonian reports that in 2021 and 2022, the Fire Marshal also issued a suspension of the full-service mandate in response to heat waves and wildfires that made it more dangerous for pump attendants to stand around outside all day.
This led to another effort in 2022, backed up by a slick astroturf campaign of Oregonians for Choice at the Pump, which came closer to passage.
But a late-in-the-game fiscal analysis finding that the Oregon Fire Marshall would need an unanticipated $550,000 to regulate "consumer pumping" upended this effort. Supportive legislators struggled to find the money, and the effort failed.
This year, it all came together.
Pandemic-era labor shortages have persisted, leading gas stations to continue pushing for an expansion of self-service.
Legislators argued that the pumping public was coming around to the idea as well.
"Oregonians are getting better, [and] more and more familiar with pumping their own gas, and they are becoming more and more supportive of the idea of having the choice of whether they can pump their own gas," said Rep. Julie Fahey (D–West Eugene).
Not everyone was on board.
"I deeply admire the crew of attendants who serve us in South Eugene at our local Chevron station. They comprise all races, genders and ages. This bill has the capacity to fire 50% of them ultimately," said one Scott Bartlett in written testimony.
The state wasn't ready for a full libertarian approach to vehicle fueling. The new law only allows station owners to convert half their pumps to self-service. The other half will have to be staffed by an attendant.
When a gas station industry representative said in a February public hearing on the bill that it would be better for station owners to be able to go completely self-service, the committee chair, Rep. Dacia Grayber (D–Portland), said the only reason the bill was getting a hearing was because of its 50 percent full-service mandate.
"We're not in the business of jobs destruction," she said.
It's true that in the 48 states where market forces have been allowed to operate, full-service gas stations have basically disappeared. Strangely enough, however, these states haven't been left with legions of permanently unemployed and impoverished pump attendants, and it's not because they all moved to Oregon to staff its state-created full-service pumps.
Instead, these workers have gone on to earn a wage doing other tasks—many of which are likely higher paying, more productive, and comfortable than handling gas pumps for customers. They don't need the state governments to create jobs for them in order to have work.
And if full-service defenders are right when they argue that Oregon customers put a higher value on the full-service gas station experience than everywhere else in the country, gas attendant jobs will stick around.
Oregon might have partially rolled back its self-service gas pump mandate, but it should have gone all the way.