The next time I pass a gas station, I’ll wonder about what’s happening beneath it. The underground tanks that hold fuel can corrode and fail, allowing toxic chemicals to contaminate soil and water. Big oil has known about this problem for decades but has largely ignored it by attempting to pass the cleanup buck to independent owners. When that tactic started to fail and insurance companies refused to insure tanks against leaks and environmental damage, you might wonder who got stuck with the tab. If you guessed “the tax payer,” you’d be correct. Kate Yoder takes into the history of gas stations and the ever-present environmental costs, noting that while many leaking gas station sites have been cleaned up, there is much yet to do.

The number of stations overall has been in decline for decades thanks to mediocre profits, rising land values in cities, and more fuel-efficient cars. An analysis from Boston Consulting Group found that between 25 and 80 percent of gas stations nationwide could be unprofitable in 12 years — and that analysis was conducted in 2019, before a slate of new policies, including federal tax credits, were passed to promote electric vehicles. Under vehicle-emissions rules unveiled by the Biden administration in April, EVs would make up as much as two-thirds of all U.S. car sales by 2031. Last year, Washington state set a target of ending the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2030, just seven years away; it has also adopted California’s stricter deadline of 2035, along with five other states.

That shift could lead to a pileup of vacant gas stations that the existing cleanup programs won’t be able to handle. There are more than 145,000 fueling stations in the U.S., according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. Even if the country manages to break off its century-long attachment to gasoline, the fuel’s legacy may live on in the soil and water. The question of who pays to clean up the contamination is a mess in itself: In theory, station owners are supposed to pick up the tab, but sometimes they’re unable to pay — or unable to be found — when the bill comes due. So then, who pays? Sometimes it’s an insurance company, sometimes it’s an oil company, and sometimes it’s the government. It’s up to lawyers and courts to hash it out.