- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

The government moved yesterday to eradicate a widely used gasoline additive once touted as a magic potion for slaying smog and pepping up engines.

The substance is polluting the nation's water supplies.

The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department announced they were recommending that Congress "immediately" amend the Clean Air Act to eliminate the justification for using MTBE, a noxious substance that is seeping into lakes and streams from storage tanks, service-station containers, refineries and other sources.

MTBE methyl tertiary-butyl ether gained popularity a decade ago as a way of satisfying amendments to the Clean Air Act. But beyond altering those old amendments, Carol M. Browner, the EPA administrator, declared that "as a backstop measure" her agency was "beginning regulatory action aimed at eliminating MTBE from gasoline."

However, she explained at a media briefing, since it would take about three years for the proposed EPA regulations to take effect, Congress must act now.

"If we delay too long, the problem will become worse. The time has come to take action," she stated.

In addition, Mrs. Browner and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman urged legislators to create a "renewable fuel standard for all gasoline." The new standard would replace a so-called "oxygenate requirement."

Such a provision would effectively boost the use and the production of ethanol. That's good, the administration argues, because as a side effect, widespread use of ethanol would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Ethanol is made from corn and is considered a safer additive than MTBE for reducing gasoline pollutants. It's "one of the most-studied additives" in the world, Miss Browner said.

Ethanol also is a favorite of farmers, and Mr. Glickman was effusive in recommending its heightened use. He said encouraging expanded use of ethanol "will increase farm income, create jobs in rural America, improve our energy security, and help protect the environment."

But although the American Petroleum Institute agrees with the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating MTBE, many in the oil industry and some oil-state legislators chafe at the administration's legislative recommendations.

For example, in a statement last evening, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, chastised the EPA for "dragging its feet on the [MTBE] issue." He objected to the agency's legislative recommendations and criticized the use of rule-making to address the MTBE issue.

Mr. Inhofe said in a statement, "Now is not the time to rush into a new fuels mandate while we're facing an energy crisis."

Oil refiners were, in fact, the chief proponents for adding MTBE to gasoline. The additive injects oxygen molecules into gasoline and boosts octane. It makes the engine perform better, while reducing tailpipe emissions. Thus, the substance was seen as an effective and desirable replacement for harmful lead in gasoline, and it was introduced mainly into premium gasoline mixes.

The occasion for promoting more widespread MTBE use came when the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990.

The amendments required areas of the nation with the worst ozone smog problems to use "reformulated gasoline," meaning gasoline with a 2 percent increase in oxygen content. Mixing MTBE with gasoline would do that. So would ethanol.

But ethanol is not a petroleum product. And heightened use of ethanol had and has the potential of cutting into petroleum sales. So petroleum companies lobbied hard for wide use of MTBE.

California, for one, passed regulations creating a huge market for MTBE. Other states did, too. The substance became common in the 17 states and the District, which were required to used reformulated gasoline or volunteered to use it so they could meet clear-air standards.

Currently, MTBE is the oxygen additive most widely used to meet the reformulated-gasoline mandate. It is mixed in about 87 percent of the reformulated gasolines sold.

Yet even in 1990, as the campaign for MTBE was accelerating, there were hints of trouble. The EPA says there were scattered reports that MTBE was appearing in water. And it was found that rats fed an MTBE tonic contracted cancer. Still, the potential dangers were ignored.

Last year, the EPA finally commissioned a "blue-ribbon panel" on MTBE and oxygenates in gasoline to study claims the substance posed a danger. The panel, composed of industry representatives and health experts, concluded it does just that.

MTBE creates "a significant and unacceptable risk to drinking water and ground-water resources," the panel found.

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