OPINION: Finding hope in dark times

By Cassie Mullen, director of market development at the Renewable Fuels Association | April 01, 2020

Emergencies like pandemics are times of disruption, trauma, and even fear.  But they are also moments when people can come together to help each other. The reaction to COVID-19 from businesses and communities worldwide appears to offer a bit of optimism, with the sudden emergence of innovation we are seeing throughout the ethanol industry. Perhaps there is room for hope that, together, we will not only survive this pandemic—but even thrive.

One of the greatest signs of this when it comes to ethanol, perhaps, is when producers switch gears to supply ethanol for hand sanitizers and related products. Of course, the amount of ethanol being supplied is small overall, especially compared to fuel ethanol, so we don’t expect it to be a major driver of ethanol demand in the months ahead. But this provides a way for our ethanol producers to supply an important product that can save lives in this national emergency. They are helping their communities and making a difference in a way that ties directly to their operation.

At the same time, we want to celebrate the great spirit of giving of retailers when it comes the virus. Suppliers to the convenience and fuel retailing industry are engaged and certainly doing their part to support community relief efforts and other pandemic-specific efforts amid the ongoing global coronavirus crisis. Here are a few examples of the many efforts.

 

    •New York-based Gasland Petroleum  made “a significant, and much needed contribution” to Vassar Brother’s Medical Center of Poughkeepsie, to supply health-care staff with personal protective equipment to battle the COVID-19 crisis.

    •Convenience store titan Wawa has distributed $30,000 to food banks in Philadelphia, Delaware and Florida to provide relief from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    •Loves Travel stops & Country stores have teamed with United Way of Central Oklahoma and are donating $100,000 to its COVID-19 Response Fund.

    •Casey’s has dedicated an internal task force to monitor and respond to the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, which include increased capacity for cleaning of high touch surfaces and the discontinuation of refillable drink options. Additionally, during the outbreak, Casey’s is giving hourly employees an additional $2 per hour.

    •Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip is giving approximately 26,000 employees temporary bonuses for six weeks. Pilot has followed suit for employees at its 750 locations with an additional $2 per hour, retroactive to March 19, and is offering its drivers a free meal during every shift. Pilot also instituted an emergency pay plan to help employees facing quarantine.

    •Retail giants Sheetz and RaceTrac have come to the table in support of their workers with a $3-per-hour increase.

    •While one would expect a drastic drop in the workforce, Kwik Trip, 7-Eleven and GPM Investments have announced that through this crisis they will add an additional 27,000 jobs into the marketplace. The hiring surge is necessary to accommodate increased traffic, distribution channels, mobile ordering and an unprecedented rise in delivery orders.

 

Efforts to keep businesses safely operating during this time of uncertainty haven’t stopped there. I recently spoke with Carolyn Hoskins, Director of the Office of Underground Storage Tanks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about how locations can remain vigilant and operational while still maintaining recommended current health advisories and social distancing practices.

“During this global pandemic, we are each facing personal and professional challenges unlike anything we have encountered before,” Hoskins said. “Gas stations and convenience stores are essential critical infrastructure; all Americans count on them to stay open in a crisis for food and fuel and other extremely important necessities. I appreciate all the efforts that so many people are making to ensure that our community stays viable, open, and at the same time continuing our vigilance to properly maintain, operate and test our equipment as best we can to prevent potential releases to the environment.” 

EPA recognizes that, based on current conditions, normal monitoring requirements and scheduled maintenance is far more challenging, Hoskins added. As a result, EPA and state partners are developing guidance on compliance impacts that we will be available soon; California and Colorado have already released guidance for their states. Finally, Hoskins mentioned that the EPA is carefully considering what work should be paused during this time in LUST cleanup programs. 

Finally, last week, the National Association of Convenience Stores sent letters to the four major credit card networks, asking them to push back the current October 1 AFD liability shift deadline.

"Our retailers' top priority at this time is providing fuel and other products to the Americans who need it most and keeping its employees and customers safe and healthy,” the letter stated. “Given the significant impediments to many retailers getting [automated fuel dispensers] AFDs and appropriate software that accept EMV payments developed, tested, certified and installed, we respectfully request that you delay the AFD liability shift and set a new, achievable date for that transition once the current crisis has abated.”

As in past national emergencies, there are striking signs of resilience and a sense of community support typically absent in our everyday lives. Throughout these stories, there is a sense that none of us are alone and that, together, we can thrive and return a better version of our former selves.