Beyer: Government should fund generators for gas stations

This is a view of the walk up This is a view of the walk up line at Mobil Gas located on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, one of the few stations in the area open during the current gas shortage. Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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As Long Islanders fill their tanks for Thanksgiving travel, we're all grateful that the gasoline lines we experienced in the days after superstorm Sandy have abated. The urge to guard against a repeat of Long Island's post-storm gas woes is understandable, but some of the legislation being proposed is misguided.

Officials in the Town of Hempstead are considering requiring gas stations to have backup generators. Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) is proposing a requirement that stations have a manual-, battery- or generator-operated pump. Suffolk Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) has introduced a bill that would require station generators to be equipped with automatic transfer switches.

Requiring Long Island gas stations to purchase and maintain backup generators will only work if such mandates are uniform across the region, and either the state or federal government foots the bill.

Regulations implemented town by town or even county by county will cause expensive and counterproductive confusion for the industry. Compulsory involvement without a corresponding grant to cover the cost will force some independent business owners to close, while others will have to increase their prices to recoup the additional expense. Legislation without a funding mechanism amounts to an unfunded mandate from the very legislators who bemoan such impositions foisted on them by Albany and Washington.

Running a gas station on backup power requires more than filling an off-the-shelf generator with gas and turning a switch. It's not enough simply to power the gas pumps, since selling gas alone is a money-losing proposition, even for a few days. Owners need to open the convenience store, which uses a great deal of electricity. Generators that can provide uninterrupted power for gas pumps, refrigerator units and computer systems carry price tags of $30,000 to $40,000.

Stores would need to be rewired to accommodate backup generators, and storing a machine of the required size would be difficult, since every square foot in most convenience stores already serves a specific purpose. Insurance costs would be increased to cover the generators. Employees would have to be trained to maintain and operate them safely, and once the generators are in place, they most likely will have to be inspected and registered -- yet another cost that has to be covered somehow.

Inflicting such significant costs on owners of independent small businesses will make it even harder for them to survive in a tough economic environment. It will also hamper their ability to compete against the corporate-owned chains and gas station owners who operate dozens of locations across the Island and can absorb such costs more readily.

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Independent operators provide the competition that keeps everybody honest when it comes to pricing. Remove them from the Long Island landscape and episodes like last spring's exorbitant charges for credit card users could become standard operating procedure.

Long Island learned the hard way just how vital petroleum is to the region. Since each piece of legislation proposed to date cites how essential an adequate flow of petroleum is to the region's ability to function, it only stands to reason that government should ensure that functionality.

Requiring and funding backup generators for gas stations is only half the battle. Any regional emergency plan must include measures to ensure that the gas-processing terminals are up and running quickly. As we saw earlier this month, having power either from the grid or from backup generators is meaningless if there is no fuel to sell. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's emergency planning efforts must address these complex and challenging issues.

The simplest solution is to make gas stations a top priority for power restoration. Most of our members have been serving Long Island for decades. None can remember ever being without power or product for more than 36 hours. Most service stations are located along major thoroughfares with traffic lights that should be operational as soon as possible. Repowering these businesses shouldn't require special treatment from the utility. By working together and using common sense, we can ensure that when Thanksgiving 2013 comes around, we'll be grateful that we avoided another gas crisis.

Kevin Beyer is the president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association.

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