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Additive Rises to Top of Energy Debate

October 11, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It's not Arctic drilling. Nor a proposed tax break for a gas pipeline project. Nor any of the other energy proposals that have had a higher profile.

The latest controversy to threaten President Bush's goal of enacting a new national energy policy is over a much more mundane issue: whether to limit the liability of manufacturers of a gasoline additive blamed for contaminating water supplies.

A bipartisan group of 42 senators, enough to stage a filibuster that could scuttle the energy bill, signed a letter Friday urging the bill's Republican writers to reject any legal protections for producers of the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

The legal protections enjoy the backing of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose home state includes manufacturers of the additive.

The substance, which will be banned from California gasoline by the end of the year, has been used to reduce air pollution but is blamed for contaminating groundwater, especially in California.

The liability issue has emerged as a major sticking point that threatens to delay until next year the first overhaul of national energy policy in a decade.

In their letter to the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate energy committees, the senators say that MTBE has contaminated "significant portions" of the nation's water supply.

"Congress should act swiftly to discontinue its use and ensure that the polluters pay to clean up the mess to which they have knowingly contributed," the letter says.

The senators did not say they would stage a filibuster if the legal protections are included in a final bill.

Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Oxygenated Fuels Assn., which represents the additive's manufacturers, said he thought it unlikely that several Midwestern senators who signed the letter would fight the legal protections if it meant blocking an energy bill that is expected to mandate greater use of corn-based ethanol, an important issue to their farm states.

The additive's producers have pushed for the liability protection, contending that Congress promoted the use of MTBE by requiring cleaner-burning gasoline. They say the legal protections would not prevent lawsuits for negligence, such as mishandling of MTBE, but would prevent plaintiffs from claiming MTBE was a "defective" product.

Jonathan Grella, a DeLay spokesman, said the provision would provide "very narrow liability relief."

Efforts to include the legal protections in the energy bill were prompted by lawsuits against the fuel additive's producers, including one in South Lake Tahoe last year that led to a $69-million settlement.

Opponents of the provision say it would shift the burden of cleaning up water supplies to taxpayers. The cleanup cost in Santa Monica alone is estimated to be $230 million, according to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

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