- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A
key U.S. senator introduced a bill on Thursday to ban the controversial
gasoline additive MTBE and offered a separate amendment to encourage "clean
- "MTBE has done more damage to our drinking water
than we really would care to know," said Sen. Bob Smith, chairman
of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in a speech on the
Senate floor. "This is a serious environmental problem that must be
- Lawmakers have been struggling this year to come up with
a plan for eliminating MTBE, which has contaminated groundwater supplies
across the country.
- The problem has been complicated by conflicting regional
interests. Midwest farmers, in particular, have been wary of any solutions
that might reduce demand for ethanol, an alcohol fuel made from corn.
- Meanwhile, California and New England states have been
concerned that simply eliminating MTBE would require them to use ethanol
in cleaner-burning "reformulated gasoline" (RFG).
- That could boost fuel costs because of ethanol's high
volatility in the hot summer months, those states argue.
- "This is a tough, tough issue," Smith said.
"It's hard to get agreement and everybody's not going to get what
- Smith's bill, which is scheduled for committee action
on Sept. 7, would require the Environmental Protection Agency to ban MTBE
within four years and provide $200 million for MTBE cleanup activities.
- The legislation would also allow individual states to
waive the current federal requirement that RFG contain at least two percent
oxygen by weight.
- Both MTBE -- which is short for methyl tertiary butyl
ether -- and ethanol are used to add oxygen to RFG.
- MTBE is used in about 87 percent of RFG, which is required
in areas with the worst air pollution and accounts for about one-third
of the gasoline sold in the United States.
- Ethanol supplies about 12 percent of the RFG market.
- The Clinton administration has proposed replacing the
two-percent oxygen mandate with a new requirement that a certain percentage
of the total gasoline market come from "renewable sources."
- Smith rejected that approach as too expensive and a de
facto mandate for ethanol.
- But in a major development, two important regional groups
representing 32 states -- the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use
Management (NESCAUM) and the Governors' Ethanol Coalition -- last week
called on Congress to create a "clean alternative fuels program"
that would allow for steady expansion of domestically-produced renewable
- Such a program could include not just ethanol, but also
premium gasoline blends, electric and natural gas cars and new fuel cell
- The separate amendment Smith offered to his bill would
set aside 0.6 percent of the total U.S. fuels market for clean alternative
fuels beginning in 2002. That would increase gradually to 1.5 percent in
- While not a done deal, "we have talked extensively
with ethanol-state senators over the past couple of months and have good
reason to believe there will be movement toward that position," Smith
told reporters after his speech.
- Still, once Congress returns from its August recess,
Smith could only have four or five weeks to get an MTBE bill through the
Senate and the House.
- Lawmakers are expected to adjourn early this year because
of the November presidential and congressional elections.
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