EPA Announces End
To MTBE Use In Gasoline
WASHINGTON (AP-CP) - The Clinton administration has decided to phase out MTBE as a gasoline additive on grounds it poses a risk to public health or the environment, government sources said today.
MTBE, a leading oxygenate and octane booster, reduces emissions of smog, but it has been linked to groundwater pollution in California and elsewhere. It is used in one-third of the gasoline sold in the United States.
Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was announcing this afternoon that her agency will seek to "significantly reduce or eliminate" use of MTBEs under the Toxic Substance Control Act. That law allows EPA to ban chemicals "deemed to pose an unreasonable risk to the public or the environment," said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The agency also will ask Congress for changes in the Clean Air Act that will encourage use of ethanol, an additive from corn, in place of MTBE, according to a congressional source. The 1990 law requires the use of oxygenates in gasoline.
The EPA previously has said it has no authority to regulate MTBE, and Congress should act to limit its use in light of evidence the additive is contaminating groundwater.
MTBE is used in all or part of 16 states, and is in much of the gasoline sold in the Northeast. Refiners turned to the additive after the Clean Air Act required gasoline in areas with serious air pollution to contain at least two per cent oxygen by weight.
Last summer, an EPA advisory panel said that while current levels of MTBE in water pose no health risk, its use should be dramatically curtailed because of potential widespread water pollution problems. MTBE has been found to be a carcinogen and poses health and environmental risks, other critics of the additive have said.
The sources said the EPA action was a "backstop measure" because Congress had not acted to eliminate use of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether.
Vancouver-based Methanex Corp., the world's largest methanol producer, says the EPA's calls to reduce use of the gasoline additive MTBE are "unnecessary and misguided."
Methanex said last July that limiting MTBE in gasoline "will likely threaten air-quality achievements and other important environmental objectives and increase the cost of gasoline."
Methanol, produced primarily from natural gas, is a feedstock used to make MTBE.
Methanex said the "known root cause"' of MTBE in water is "uncontrolled and uncorrected gasoline release to the environment. We do not support accepting or ignoring pollution."
California, which has more leeway than other states to regulate air pollution, has already decided to ban the use of MTBE by the end of 2002. State officials have asked the EPA for a waiver from the Clean Air Act's oxygenate requirements so that the state doesn't have to switch to ethanol, which is more expensive than MTBE.
Methanex is suing California under a clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement that could result in $970 million US in compensation.
A coalition of Northeast states said last year said that low levels of MTBE were found in 15 per cent of the drinking water tested in the Northeast, in most cases in amounts less than 2 parts per billion. Water begins to pose a health concern and tastes or smells bad at 30 to 70 parts per billion; about one per cent of water supplies tested in the Northeast had concentrations above 35 parts per billion.


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