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California and the West

EPA to Ban Gas Additive Nationwide

Environment: U.S. agency follows California lead and will phase out MTBE, which reduces air pollution but has contaminated water supplies.

March 21, 2000|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Following the lead of California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it will impose a nationwide ban on a clean-burning gasoline additive that has contaminated water supplies.

Methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, has been added to gasoline across much of the nation to boost its oxygen content and help clean up air pollution. But it has leaked from underground tanks, spread quickly and polluted drinking-water wells in some cities, most notably in Santa Monica.

"If we delay too long, the problem will become worse," EPA Administrator Carol Browner said at a news conference Monday. "The time has come to take action. Americans deserve both clean air and clean water and never one at the expense of the other."

In addition to the proposed phaseout, which could take up to three years to implement, the Clinton administration announced that it is asking Congress to amend the Clean Air Act. The amendment is aimed at eliminating MTBE and requiring fuels to include a small amount of ethanol or other renewable products, Browner said.

California's regulation bans MTBE by the end of 2002. But for that ban to take effect without worsening air quality, Congress must first remove a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires gasoline to contain a certain amount of oxygenates such as MTBE or ethanol.

On Monday, Browner said she is asking Congress to eliminate the oxygenate requirement and replace it with a national requirement for use of some renewable fuels. If Congress does not act, the EPA is considering granting California a waiver.

Most oil companies will use ethanol instead of MTBE to boost oxygenates in gasoline. Ethanol, made largely from corn, is not as clean-burning as MTBE, but experts say it poses a far lower threat to water supplies because it biodegrades in water.

Because Congress has not acted to ban MTBE, Browner said the EPA will take action on its own under a law that allows the agency to phase out any substance that poses a public threat. "This action is the best tool legally available for eliminating the use of MTBE," Browner said. The full proposed rule will be issued in about six months. But, Browner said, the ban could take several years to implement because of long reviews the EPA must conduct under law. As a result, she said it is still important for Congress to act soon.

Banning MTBE has been controversial in Congress because members representing Midwestern states fear that if the law's oxygenate standard is removed, corn growers and renewable fuel producers will lose business.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Monday that the EPA action does not go far enough and will not provide economic protection for farmers. He called for an immediate ban on MTBE and a requirement for ethanol.

The EPA "wants farmers to give up a $1-billion-per-year bird in the hand today for the slight chance legislation can be passed to provide a $1-billion-per-year market nine years from now," Grassley said.

But U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the market for ethanol will grow if Congress approves the renewable-fuels legislation recommended by the Clinton administration.

The legislation faces a rocky time in Congress. Representative Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, said he is "disappointed that the best Administrator Browner can do is present the American public with only a vague half-page proposal that offers no solutions to this debate on clean air."

Some oil companies have already removed MTBE from their gasoline. The additive may cause cancer, and it renders water undrinkable because of its foul odor and taste.

To ensure that there is no backsliding in cleaning up smog when MTBE is removed, the California Air Resources Board has required oil refiners to meet a series of requirements to reformulate gasoline. The cost in California is expected to reach $1 billion, raising the price of gasoline by 4 to 7 cents per gallon in 2003.

Santa Monica has shut down some MTBE-tainted wells, and oil companies have mounted cleanups. In the Northeast, low levels of MTBE have been found in 15% of water tested there.

Browner said cleaning up the contaminated water will be "challenging but essential."

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