- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

If just-released reports about last summers gasoline price spikes have any predictive value, get ready for another expensive summer driving season. The same factors that led to the problem last year inadequate reserves, difficult-to-comply-with "reformulated" gasoline requirements still exist and are just waiting to put the arm on us again.
"We are beginning the driving season with very little stock cushion," Energy Information Administration Director John Cook said. Nationwide, gasoline stocks are almost 10 percent below their 1999 levels at 194 million barrels. Yet U.S. oil refineries are operating at or near their maximum capacity, according to the American Petroleum Institute. OPECs decision to cut crude oil production will not help matters at all.
But perhaps the most important factor is that the chemical used to make the "reformulated" gasoline, which is required in many areas by federal law to curb tailpipe emissions from motor vehicles, has become both more scarce and more costly to produce, because a key ingredient, methanol, is derived from natural gas. As the price of natural gas for home heating and similar uses shot up this winter, there was less incentive to divert natural gas production into manufacturing the additive Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether, or MTBE.
MTBE is an "oxygenate" that supposedly helps reduce automobile emissions. It also contaminates groundwater, however, and has become a significant public health threat as the Environmental Protection Agency finally admitted last year.
This is disturbing news in its own right, but much more alarming in view of the economic slowdown of the past several months. Our society runs on energy, and any significant rise in fuel costs means that it will cost more to manufacture, transport and deliver goods, to drive to work, to shop everything.
We cant do much about our OPEC friends, but that doesnt mean there arent things we could do, right now, to address the problem before it even becomes a problem. For one thing, the federal mandate regarding the fuel additive MTBE should be reconsidered, if not dropped entirely. Thats because MTBE works, in effect, by adding oxygen to the fuel being burned thereby reducing harmful combustion byproducts. However, this only works meaningfully in much older vehicles typically those vehicles built before the early 1980s, which lack the sophisticated engine management systems of newer cars.
Second, immediate steps need to be taken to increase domestic crude oil production including exploration/drilling in the barren wasteland that environmental activists disingenuously refer to as the "pristine" and "untouched" Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). This vast tract of land in a remote area of Alaska is more of a perpetually frozen peat bog than the lush Garden of Eden described by environmentalists.
Whether we experience another energy crisis this summer ultimately comes down to two things: Whether, on the one hand, we continue to embrace an emissions-reduction stratagem of extremely dubious value and with many shortcomings; and whether we will allow a handful of extremists on the fringe of the environmental movement to shunt the rest of us into the poorhouse.

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