OPINION: Fuel retailers must keep one eye underground

By Cassie Mullen, director of market development, Renewable Fuels Association | November 03, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reminded c-store operators of the need to maintain insurance on older underground storage tanks.  Since the useful lifespan of a UST is about 30 years, it is important that retailers not let their financial responsibility requirements be neglected over time. Last year, a Fuels Market News magazine article sounded a similar alarm. All of the compliance deadlines for financial responsibility have passed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, and all active USTs must meet financial responsibility requirements. EPA’s guide on the financial responsibility requirements was updated in 2018 and provides a wealth of information to retailers concerned about what’s below the ground.

Of the 544,000 storage tanks now underground for petroleum or other hazardous substances, an estimated 165,000 will reach the end of their useful life over the next decade. Retailers will need to soon make major decisions about replacement, and there has never been a better time to replace or upgrade, thanks to a number of state and federal programs that can help defray the cost.

We covered some of these incentives here last month, and the good news is that one program remains part of the Build Back Better Act before Congress, thanks to Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA). This would provide $1 billion in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grants over the next 10 years to expand biofuel pump infrastructure, upgrade existing tanks and pumps, and increase usage of higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel. There is a long way to go before this particular element of the legislation becomes law, and further still to go before it funds projects, but it demonstrates a definite interest on the part of policymakers to help the industry move forward.

Adding to the consideration is the fact that the fuel that drives our cars and trucks may be changing as policymakers seek way to decarbonize energy. As much as electric vehicles may be hyped as the future of the automotive industry, it’s a distant future. Even in 2050, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than three-quarters of new vehicles sold will be powered by liquid fuels, whether gasoline or flex-fuel.

EPA is considering changes that will make regulations less burdensome for underground storage tank owners and operators that store E15 and other ethanol blends. The rule, if adopted, would include requiring new UST systems or replacement equipment to be compatible with blends up to 100%. This is a great opportunity for the ethanol industry, to be sure—and also for retailers to set themselves apart from the competition.

We strongly recommend marketers plan now for an infrastructure that can accommodate a broader set of fuels, especially higher biofuel blends. Those who are faced with the need to replace an antiquated underground storage system can take advantage of the programs outlined and save a lot of money while stepping up and preparing a fuel retail location that will set it apart from the competition, open to the new blends that will come online as more and more innovation arises in today’s climate-concerned (and climate-smart!) atmosphere.

At the Renewable Fuels Association, we are just a phone call or email away, and our website offers a number of resources to help fuel marketers take their locations to the next level. This includes links to an EPA booklet documenting UST compatibility with biofuels like ethanol, a retailers’ handling and conversion checklist, and other important information.