MTBE debate

An uncommon but politically persuasive coalition is asking the US Congress to reduce the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as an oxygenate in reformulated gasoline (RFG).

Feb 11th, 2000

An uncommon but politically persuasive coalition is asking the US Congress to reduce the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as an oxygenate in reformulated gasoline (RFG).

The American Petroleum Institute, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), the American Lung Association, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are combining efforts.

The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments require RFG, used in nine major US urban areas with ozone pollution problems, to contain 2 wt % of oxygen.

States and environmental groups are concerned about MTBE contamination of drinking water supplies resulting from leaking underground tanks. API opposes the 2% mandate for oxygen.

The coalition wants Congress to repeal the mandate and lower the maximum MTBE content in gasoline in stages, giving refiners time to adjust. NESCAUM urged a 50-75% reduction of MTBE over 4 years.

The groups also want Congress to clarify states' powers to regulate MTBE and other oxygenates. More specifically, they want the US Environmental Protection Agency to allow California to set oxygen limits for its gasoline.

Reasons

NRDC's Janet Hathaway said, "While there have been huge pollution reductions in smog and cancer-causing air toxics from the switch to RFG, Congress can no longer ignore the harm being done by gasoline and MTBE leaking into drinking water supplies.

"Oil refiners have the ability to produce gasoline that achieves just as much air pollution reduction without oxygenates such as MTBE, but the law currently mandates their use."

Mark Meteyer, API's Fuels Team leader, said the law forces refiners to use twice the level of oxygenates needed to achieve the same air quality benefits.

But the Oxygenated Fuels Association said, "Despite its key contribution to the nation's enormously successful clean-burning gasoline program, MTBE has been unfairly singled out as a threat to groundwater. OFA believes that, if you fix (leaking gasoline) tanks, you fix the problem."

Outlook

The MTBE phasedown effort could be successful in Congress.

Last year, a study for EPA concluded MTBE is not needed to achieve clean air and is a threat to US water supplies (OGJ, Aug. 2, 1999, p. 35).

Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), the Senate's environment and public works committee chairman, supports an MTBE rollback and plans hearings soon on legislation.

Meanwhile, the California congressional delegation is pressuring EPA to let the state waive the gasoline oxygenate requirement. Last month, 41 congressmen petitioned EPA Administrator Carol Browner for relief.

Defending the interests of ethanol producers, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also wrote Browner. He said the oxygenate debate "ignores the obvious solution: replacing toxic MTBE in gasoline with ethanol."

Cynics say that, because of election-year politics, EPA couldn't grant California a waiver before the Iowa caucus was held but is likely to act before California's Mar. 6 presidential primary election.

More in HSE