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Fuel Additive Subtracted

Tosco to Test Gasoline That Omits MTBE

April 16, 1998|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tosco Corp. said Wednesday that it is experimenting with selling gasoline that does not contain the controversial additive MTBE at 50 of its 76-brand service stations in Northern California.

The gasoline that Tosco will be selling at the stations in Contra Costa, Marin and Sonoma counties will comply with all California and federal standards, Tosco spokesman David Kory said.

"This gasoline is completely legal," Kory said. "We're trying to demonstrate that solutions to MTBE gasoline are possible."

MTBE is a key component of the reformulated cleaner-burning gasoline that has been refined and marketed in California since 1995. The additive adds oxygen to gasoline to help it burn more cleanly.

But critics contend that the additive is cleaning the air at a high price: polluting the water. MTBE, they contend, causes cancer and other ailments, including asthma.

Defenders of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, cite sharp reductions since the additive's widespread introduction in much more toxic airborne components of gasoline, such as benzene.

Tosco of Stamford, Conn., and Chevron Corp. of San Francisco have backed legislation that would give California refiners the option of omitting MTBE from their gasoline as long as clean-air standards are being met.

Tosco's MTBE-free gasoline is made using ethanol and will be sold during a six-month pilot program from clearly labeled pumps at 50 stations in the chain once known as Union 76. Tosco bought the chain last year from Unocal Corp. of El Segundo, keeping the orange-ball 76 signs.

Tosco operates 1,872 retail locations in California under the 76 and BP names. It also operates refineries in the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Maria areas.

"We're trying to evaluate whether this matters to people," spokesman Kory said.

The ethanol-blended gasoline will be priced about the same or a few cents per gallon less than gasoline with MTBE, he said.

It is being produced at Tosco's refinery in Rodeo, near San Francisco, and will be trucked to stations. It can't be sent by pipeline because it would mingle with MTBE gasoline, Kory said, so sales will be limited.

Tosco is the state's third-largest gasoline retailer. Los-Angeles based Arco, which is constantly jockeying for first place with Chevron, will continue to use gas containing MTBE.

"We support the studies that are being conducted" into the effects of MTBE, said Scott Loll, an Arco spokesman. "But we think that right now it's the best that's available."

Enova Powers Up

Enova Corp., parent of San Diego Gas & Electric, broke ground Tuesday on the first major power plant launched since California opened its electricity market to competition.

The 480-megawatt plant, called El Dorado Energy, is being touted as state-of-the-art and will provide competitively priced electricity to customers in the western United States. The Boulder City, Nev., plant is a $280-million joint venture with Houston Industries Inc. and is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.

"In California, customers are just beginning to see the positive effects electric competition can bring," said Stephen L. Baum, chairman and chief executive of San Diego-based Enova. "As other states adopt electric deregulation, El Dorado Energy represents the first of many similar plants likely to be built to sell power on the open market."

Enova is trying to complete a merger with Los Angeles-based Pacific Enterprises, parent of Southern California Gas. Enova's SDG&E subsidiary is in the process of selling its gas-fired power plants in California as well as its 20% interest in the San Onofre nuclear plant.

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