As gasoline stations shut down, will 2013 see a fuel crisis?

TOKYO —

In recent years, the term “nanmin” (refugee) has found increasing usage as a suffix involving some short- or medium-term inconvenience. For instance, after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, well over 1 million “kitaku-nanmin” (return-home refugees)—were stranded at rail stations and at offices in Tokyo and environs because the transportation system and road networks were temporarily shut down or jammed.

Weekly Playboy (Sept 10) foresees the emergence of another new type of “nanmin,” perhaps as early as 2013. These are the “gasusuta nanmin” (gasoline station refugees) who can’t find a place to fill their tanks.

In 1996, Japan had nearly 60,000 service stations. That number last year declined to 37,743. The drop has been particularly precipitous in Tokyo, where over the above time frame outlets declined by about half—from 2,765 to 1,385.

Factors causing the decline in business included more intense competition, brought on by the increase in self-service stations from 1998; the overall decline in new car sales; and increase in eco-cars that consume less, or no gasoline—resulting in more stations going bankrupt or simply closing down due to unprofitability.

Next year, however, the number of stations is expected to fall even further when a fire prevention law that was passed in 2010 goes into effect.

“Most of the underground tanks used to store gasoline are 40 to 50 years old, and there are concerns they’ve become corroded,” a member of the Hazardous Materials Safety Office at the Disaster Management Agency explains to the magazine. “The tanks will be required to have internal resin coatings, leak detection devices and other safety functions.”

The source adds that outlets which fail to comply with the law will be ordered to cease operations.

Forty to 50 years ago coincides with the boom in motorization in Japan, a time when stations sprang up all across the country. Those older facilities, says a spokesperson for the National Petroleum Association, will have to spring for large outlays to comply with the law.

“According to our estimates, 17,600 underground tanks will be affected,” he says. “As the average gas station has four, that means about 4,000—some 10% of the stations in Japan—will be affected.”

The cost of replacing each tank is expected to cost 1.5 million yen, so a service station with four of the tanks can expect outlays of 6 million yen or more.

Upon further investigation it was learned the national government will provide a subsidy, but stations will still be expected to spring for one-third of the costs, or roughly 2 million yen.

The declining numbers are such that already in rural prefectures with few stands—such as 324 in Fukui, 327 in Saga and 383 in Shiga—many car owners are finding they have to drive to the next town to fill their tanks. And more unhappy stories are beginning to circulate of drivers who saw the lamp flash on their instrument panel warning of low fuel, but couldn’t get to a station in time, having their cars coast to a halt due to an empty tank.

Gas stations, Weekly Playboy’s writer points out, served as a key “lifeline” in Tohoku following the March 11, 2011 disaster, supplying fuel and in some cases foodstuffs as well. And considering that the taxes collected from the petroleum products they sell amount to nearly 3 trillion yen per year, shouldn’t the government be a bit more supportive of efforts to keep the stands in operation—instead of driving them out of business?

  • 5

    sakurala

    No, the government should not be more supportive. Gas stands are in a free market, and when they profit, they sure don't hand over big chunks to the government for fun. Also, they have had a few years to think it out and plan for it so the chains could figure out what locations to keep and axe if necessairy. I live in Shiga (383 gas stands) and I have no problem finding a gas. If I go on a longer trip, I gas up before going. It is just that simple. I guess being from a small town in Canada that has no gas service for over 100km out of town has taught me to think before driving.

  • 3

    Virtuoso

    Yes, three gas stations have disappeared from my neighborhood over the past 5 years or so. But so have two Denny's restaurants, a drug store, an appliance shop, an eel restaurant, a liquor shop and various other businesses. Since the bubble economy of 20 years ago, Tokyo's never been the same. The mom & pop stores along the eki-mae shotengai appear to be the hardest hit.

  • 2

    gogogo

    I think they forgot another major point, the aging population and the decline of the Japanese population because of it, each year less and less people will be driving.

  • 4

    Virtuoso

    Actually @ gogogo, it is likely to work the opposite way. The hollowing out of the population is causing rural bus and rail lines to curtail or suspend services for lack of regular commuters, making farmers and elderly people even more dependent on automobiles.

  • -1

    edojin

    At least three gas stations have closed within the past 10 years in the area of Tokyo where I live. From what I can figure out, the nearest one is quite a distance away. Thank goodness I don't have a car ... nor do I need one here in downtown Tokyo where public transportation is excellent.

  • 5

    gonemad

    So the government subsidizes 2/3 of the cost of new tanks and the writer still complains it should be more supportive? What does he expect?

  • 1

    GW

    If the stations cant plan(as in BUDGET) for their furtures then let them rot! You see a lot of this where small business dont plan to have their bldgs renovated or new shingles on the roo or whatever, poor non-existant planning is the problem for many of these businesses

    But alas its is also more evidence of the general decline in everything in tis country, & what follows is a whole lot of whining & no one willing to take responsibility & wanting a handout..............

  • -1

    Suginamiguy

    Relics of the bubble economy era I would imagine. Would be better to kill them off quickly and force their owners into other more profitable and needed businesses. Over 60,000 in 1996, and now down to about 37,000. Doesn`t seem to be any negative impact from that loss, so the land and money could be better used in other areas.

  • 3

    Elbuda Mexicano

    Sure, selfish people that have never driven a car in their lives will never understand the impact of having less gasoline stations, but not only regular folk need gas! That fire truck that needs to fight fires, guess what, they also run on gasoline and or diesel, oh you get struck down by some idiot kid on his bike, well that ambulance also runs on gasoline, oh, somebody is trying to break into your house?? Maybe a local J cop can get their in time if you have a koban near you, if not, a patrol car running on gasoline, so just because you have never had a car and think this will not affect you, guess what??

  • 1

    sfjp330

    gogogoAug. 30, 2012 - 04:19PM JST I think they forgot another major point, the aging population and the decline of the Japanese population because of it, each year less and less people will be driving.

    And the income is decreasing every year for the average Japanese. They have less disposable income, so they will drive less. Maybe the best thing for Japaese auto manufacturer to do is to design the car with larger gas tank (maybe 25 percent larger gas tank than present), knowing that there will be fewer gas stations in the near future.

  • 0

    sakurala

    Elbuda: Yes, all those vehicals run on gas but they also tend to have ample free time to gas up between emergencies. The small towns in the boonies don't use their emergency vehicals daily and could easily make a trip to the next town over if necessairy to fuel up. And in the busiest cities, they have a larger fleet of vehicals and more than enough gas stations around.

  • 1

    Eduardo Gonzalez

    By 2090 or so, you won't see a single one in operation. Except that the diet must impose a mandatory phaseout of ALL gasoline-powered vehicles nationwide, so if they want to keep the licence, switch to a hybrid one, or take public transport for good

  • -1

    Alex Einz

    Good! The less cars we see in big cities the better! Ride a bike and do everyone a favour, you can reach pretty much anywhere in Tokyo by train or bike..why do you need a car ,look for parking,pay huge fees unless you deliver goods is beyond me.

  • 3

    sakurala

    Alex: I agree with your sentiment about Tokyo but you have to remember that not everyone lives in Tokyo. For the population that doesn't, sometimes it is necessairy to drive. For example, I live about 10km from the nearest train station and 11 km from work (which is about 4 km from the nearest station). There are 2 buses scheduled to go close to my house that could take me to a station but that is only on weekends. I do ride my bike sometimes, but there are quite a few days it isn't possible due to the weather or appointments.

  • 1

    Aizo Yurei

    Well I live in Osaka and even though I don't need a car here. If I want to travel to Shikoku or some other place driving sure beats paying 7,000~12,000 yen per person to take a shinkansen somewhere. (Although I do love the shinkansen!)

  • 0

    Jack Stern

    I recently went to "Diamond City" in Higashimurayama where they have installed several charging pumps for electric cars. While gasoline is what I use now, I suppose the trend towards hybrids and smaller cars like the "kei jidosha" will continue to cut into gasoline stations until they find a better way to come up with stations that are more like convenient stores with do it yourself pumps. There is no turning back.

  • 1

    Rod Mcalpin

    gasoline has only been arond for about 100yrs as technology changes vehicles will too/

  • 0

    Alex Einz

    Sakurala, I do agree with maintaining certain service level out of big cities but in large cities I honestly think cars should be not allowed except delivery vehicles or on special access roads., it might inconvenience some but people will appreciate safer and quieter streets and cleaner air.

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