Senate Environment Chief
Offers MTBE Phaseout Bill
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 alternative fuels."
"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 addressed."
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 they want."
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 fuels.
Such a program could include not just ethanol, but also premium gasoline blends, electric and natural gas cars and new fuel cell technology.
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 2011.
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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