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California and the West

More MTBE Put in Gas Amid Move to Ban It

Environment: Chevron and Tosco defend action as necessary to stretch supply during recent shortage. Davis has ordered phaseout of the additive.

May 07, 1999|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Just as Gov. Gray Davis was declaring MTBE an environmental hazard and ordering it phased out of gasoline, two oil companies were increasing amounts of the controversial additive in gas sold in Northern California.

Officials at Chevron Corp. and Tosco Corp. confirmed the boost in MTBE, saying it was necessary to stretch their gasoline supply after refinery fires and marketplace factors reduced production.

The move enabled the companies to keep a high volume of their gasoline flowing to market in March and April, when pump prices spiked to more than $2 a gallon in some parts of California.

Chevron and Tosco officials defended the move as a temporary measure to help them serve customers during a short-term emergency. And while MTBE--a possible carcinogen--is scheduled to be banned in California, adding more of it to gasoline now is not illegal.

Critics, including a state senator, condemned the tactic, accusing the companies of putting profits ahead of public fears of a chemical that has contaminated drinking water wells throughout the state.

They also call the move hypocritical because both oil companies have been leaders in making MTBE-free gasoline. Last month, Tosco held a news conference to publicize its delivery of MTBE-free gasoline to Union 76 stations in the Lake Tahoe area. It also sells MTBE-free gas in three Bay Area counties.

Chevron, meanwhile, had been supplying MTBE-free gasoline to much of Northern California. About half of the gasoline produced at its Richmond refinery is typically made without MTBE.

"These are companies that have been making MTBE-free gas for quite awhile, so why are they doing this?" said state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda). "It's pure economics. The price is high, and they're stretching their supply by adding more MTBE. . . . It's hard not to be cynical about it."

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) expressed similar concerns: "They seem to be sending mixed signals here. There's no formal MTBE ban yet, but this is obviously taking us in the wrong direction."

MTBE is a key component of "cleaner-burning gasoline," which has been used in most of California's 24 million vehicles since 1996. While credited with reducing auto emissions, MTBE has leaked from underground storage tanks to contaminate drinking water from Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe. It also taints lakes by entering the water from two-stroke engines such as those that power water scooters.

Although other components of gasoline also seep from subterranean tanks, MTBE is a particular peril because it travels into ground water so quickly. Its health effects on humans are poorly understood, but it has been shown to cause cancer in mice and rats.

Responding to a rising clamor, the governor declared in late March that MTBE poses a "significant risk" to the environment and ordered it phased out in California by the end of 2002.

Davis was traveling Thursday and had no immediate comment on the new developments. A spokeswoman noted that Davis has publicly urged companies to voluntarily remove MTBE from gasoline before the deadline.

The boost in MTBE usage by Chevron and Tosco came to light after Perata--acting on a tip--asked an East Bay water district to take samples of gasoline at three service stations in early April. The samples showed that various grades of gas at the stations--in San Francisco and Oakland--contained levels of MTBE as high as 15%, the legal limit.

Company officials did not dispute the findings, and acknowledge that they represent an increase. MTBE typically makes up 10% to 11% of Tosco's gasoline, while much of Chevron's Northern California gas had previously contained no MTBE, officials said. The exception to that is in Sacramento, where clean air rules mandate an 11% concentration of the smog-fighting additive.

Mixing in more MTBE was one of many steps the companies took in response to a gas supply shortage that hit in March, officials said. The shortage was caused in part by a Feb. 23 explosion that closed Tosco's Martinez refinery and a fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery on March 25.

Al Jessel, a Chevron fuels specialist, said the fire cut the refinery's capacity by 10% to 15%, forcing officials to hunt for ways to stretch supply. In addition to blending in more MTBE, Chevron "bought every gallon of gasoline we could find from anyone anywhere in the world."

If the company had not added more MTBE, the result would have been an even tighter supply and even higher prices, Jessel said.

"We had to make a balance in our minds between having MTBE-free gas and running out of gas and being unable to supply our customers," said Jessel, adding that Chevron has since found new sources of gasoline and is no longer mixing in more MTBE.

At Tosco, spokesman Duane Bordvick said his company went to similar lengths to cope with the supply crunch. He took issue with critics who suggest that adding more MTBE was an environmental sin.

"Tosco is doing an awful lot to get MTBE out of gasoline. We've been a leader in the industry," Bordvick said. "But I don't think increasing it up to the legal limit over a period of days has any impact."

At Communities for a Better Environment, staff scientist Azibuike Akaba disagreed and called the companies' action "extremely irresponsible."

"We've already got a terrible contamination problem with MTBE," said Akaba, whose San Francisco-based nonprofit group has been a critic of MTBE since 1991. "The more they put in, the worse it gets."

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