Hidden Costs of An Oil Economy

UBC has canceled classes in the Biological Sciences Building after receiving another campus wide threat. Faculty, staff, and graduate students that work in the building were encouraged to make their own mind whether to come in to work today. That said, I decided to avoid the 30 minute bus ride into campus, and stick downtown all day and coffee-shop hop.

two gas stations
[Looking Northwest on Burrard and Davie]

While walking down Davie this morning, my nose picked up the faintest hint of gasoline in the air. For years, two gas stations sat across the street from one another – a Shell and an Esso – at Davie and Burrard. I always thought it was rather excessive, and wondered which of the two companies had the cohoneys to move in after the other had already claimed the block. No matter, about 2-3 months ago the entire building-complex that the Shell gas station was apart of was torn down in a single day.

burrard gas pit
[to the left is the giant mound]

This morning, two large backhoes had built up an impressive mound of contaminated dirt and soil, eventually digging down to the layer of clay underneath. The smell was presumably due gasoline that had slowly seaped into the surrounding soil from a leaky underground gasoline storage tank.

By law (in the United States, anyway) to be cleaned up [source]. But why worry about leaky gas tanks in the first place? Well, gasoline contains many additives to improve the combustion efficiency of gasoline (i.e. gasoline with higher octane numbers have more additives, and thusly produce more oomph per litre). Indeed, the US Clean Air Act (1990) made it mandatory to include these additives to reduce automobile pollution. Unfortunately, these additives seep into the local groundwater form leaky tanks, where they can remain for years (due to the slow biodegradation of said compounds) (for a review, see Fayolle et al., 2001)

In short – gas isn’t good for you (har har).

After a little more research on the US EPA website, I came across the following: in the United States, clean up and remediation of such leaks is a $1 billion industry, funded primarily through the LUST fund (Leaky Underground Storage Tank); funding for the trust originates from a 0.1 cent per gallon tax on all gasoline sold to motorists.


So, beyond the environmental and potential health costs of gasoline leaks, it costs a bloody bundle to clean up our mess. According to the US Environmental Protection agency:

Over 460,000 UST releases had been confirmed as of September 30, 2006. Steady cleanup work has progressed for over a decade and more than 350,000 contaminated sites have been cleaned up. While much good work has been and continues to be done, there are about 113,000 UST sites remaining to be cleaned up.

Doubly Wow.

Related Topics


Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com