Prevent decline of local communities amid falling number of gas stations

Under the current circumstances in which the use of next-generation vehicles such as electric vehicles is being promoted, how can the gas station network that contributes to a stable supply of gasoline and other fuels be maintained? The public and private sectors must rack their brains over this issue.

Domestic demand for gasoline dropped nearly 30% to 45.23 million kiloliters last fiscal year from a peak of 61.47 million kiloliters in fiscal 2004.

The decline is expected to continue, due mainly to the spread of eco-friendly vehicles and the trend of young people not being attracted to automobiles.

As a result, the number of gas stations, which was about 60,000 at the end of fiscal 1994, decreased by half by the end of last fiscal year. More than 300 municipalities have three or fewer gas stations, described as “gas station depopulated areas.”

Gasoline-powered vehicles are still the main means of transportation in many depopulated areas, where public transportation such as trains and buses have been withdrawn or reduced.

Gas stations supply not only gasoline but also kerosene for heating and fuel for agricultural and other equipment. If the number of gas stations is drastically reduced, the convenience of residents’ lives will be reduced and the decline of local communities will accelerate.

The government has designated gas stations as “important and indispensable social infrastructure” in its new basic energy plan. It also emphasizes that many gas stations have their own power generators and they play a key role in supplying fuel in the event of a large-scale power failure caused by a disaster.

Given that electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles are more expensive than gasoline-powered vehicles and take longer for their use to become widespread, the government’s policy of maintaining gas stations is understandable. Although there is an issue of profitability, converting a section of a gas station to a charging facility for electric vehicles would be an effective measure.

Public support is essential to put the brakes on the decline in the number of gas stations and maintain a minimum number.

In Susami, Wakayama Prefecture, the town government purchased a closed gas station and overhauled it with central government subsidies. The town commissioned the operation of the gas station to a private company and it reportedly continues to operate. This could be a useful example for other municipalities.

The consolidation and closing of gas stations that have fewer customers and the introduction of diversified operations by setting up convenience stores and other facilities are also effective ways to maintain gas stations.

It is important for local governments to ascertain the situation at gas stations in their areas and take preemptive measures.

Needless to say, support from oil wholesalers and self-help efforts from gas station operators are indispensable. Idemitsu Kosan Co. plans to use its nationwide network of gas stations as a base for day care and other services, naming them “smart general stores.”

The central government, local governments and the private sector should work together to establish a fuel supply system for localized conditions.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 19, 2021.