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March 2001

MTBE Ban Faces Uncertain Future

By Carol Sterritt

Last year, Governor Davis issued an Executive Order that would ban the presence of MTBE in re-formulated gasoline. As detailed in the Feb. 1999 Coastal Post, this water-soluble gas additive had contaminated historic numbers of aquifers, including the once pristine waters of Lake Tahoe. Two places in Marin County have "discovery wells" where numbers ranging above 90 parts per billion indicate a Superfund style cleanup will be needed. Also, recently a trailer park in Novato had to seek alternate drinking water supplies because of MTBE contamination. If the toxic were to be pulled out of gas even tomorrow, the results of its use will impact our state for decades to come. As I write this, 2003 remains the date at which this substance will finally be pulled from our gas supply.

Or will it be?

A "deep throat" source within the vast array of national, state and local water agencies is telling me to beware of several things. First of all, over the Christmas holidays, an ill-fated petition from the state of California landed on President Clinton's desk. It asked that the mandate requiring "any oxygenate" in California's gas supply be stricken. California asked this for two reasons: one obviously being the fact that the state's own funded UC study, headed by John Froines, offered sufficient scientific proof that in terms of risk to benefits, the addition of MTBE to gasoline had no benefits and offered huge risks. Froines' study also stated that the decrease in pollution seen in re-formulated gasoline is a result of the lowered sulfur, rather than any specific oxygenate being in the mix. If you lower the sulfur content, you will get cleaner burning gas, and thus cleaner air, without adding 20 tons of formaldehyde that MTBE offers California's air each and every day. If you substitute a different oxygenate for MTBE, you still will have additional costs in making the gas, so that gas pump prices will be higher. Simply put, oxygenates are not needed.

Secondly, California asked for this waiver because as we approach the 2003 deadline for MTBE removal, the oil companies need a chance to configure the formulas for a non-MTBE gas. Then, PRONTO, they need to start designing and building their new refineries so that this new "new gas" can be processed. This is both a time-consuming and expensive venture. With no clear guidance from the powers-that-be, Big Oil worries that any changes it undertakes could be futile. The Federal Government should speak, and should do so now. Otherwise nothing will be accomplished before the phase-out deadline in 2003.

However, Clinton did not endorse the petitioned-for waiver. The Federal Government, now under George Dubya's team of players, may or may not consider California's plight. But here is a possible set of less-than-encouraging scenarios should the current administration continue to ignore the Golden State. None of these scenarios are pretty.

Let's consider this: the Federal Government continues to leave in place the National EPA Mandate that California gas contain oxygenates. However, the Fed. continue to leave wide open what specific oxygenate can be used.

Since in other parts of the country, ethanol is being used, it makes some sense that ethanol will be used here as well. Union 76 already brings us its non-MTBE new gas, one formulated with ethanol, and has a higher price tag than the other gasoline retailers, as this product is trucked here from the Midwest cornbelt.

But as the oil companies consider the above, time on the Big Clock is counting down. The countdown affects not only Davis' phase-out of MTBE, but his political future as well. His next re-election campaign will coincide with the final months of the MTBE phase-out. The race for governorship could involve him carefully re-examining the gas issue. No gubernatorial candidate desires high gasoline prices at the moment that they are running for office. So, perhaps Davis will step back from his gubernatorial position, and issue a new Executive Order to negate the old one.

Not only would "common sense" as a politician fuel such an action, but the need for campaign funds (such as those that might be offered by the oil companies). Those of us who attended the MTBE State Hearings in March of 1998 learned that Big Oil did not want MTBE phased out until 2005 or preferably 2006. With a later phase-out date, they could maximize their capital investments in building the original MTBE processing plants. Great rejoicing would take place in Oil Town USA, if Arco, Chevron, Shell et al learn that their current line of processing plants may continue operating until 2006. So it follows that a few multi-million dollar campaign donations might result should Davis reverse his MTBE ban.

During the days of the March 1998 MTBE hearings, I learned many unpleasant things. For example, many appointees to various agencies with supposed "environmental" charters actually appeared to be political pawns perhaps given their job to assuage oil companies concerned about needless environmental "craziness. The Assistant Head to California EPA, the head of the California Water Quality Board, also the head of the California Air Quality Board and especially the woman heading the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, these people all seemed to know precious little about the dangers of MTBE. Whenever possible they actively defended MTBE and its continued use.

Much has been written about the panel entrusted with deciding whether MTBE should go on the list of Prop 65's carcinogenic chemicals. This particular panel worked in mysterious ways. They indeed left MTBE off Prop 65. The omission resulted from mere happenstance of fate, not as any type of "proof" as to MTBE's safety. One panel member, who would have voted for Prop 65 inclusion, never arrived for the vote due to flight delays. Another had been misinformed as to the need for "human data" studies before a chemical could be included in Prop 65's list. There is no requirement for human data studies of any kind in order to put a chemical on the list. Animal data studies are enough. This member did not realize this until after her vote, a vote that she would change if given a chance to do so. Yet Big Media has claimed again and again that the UC MTBE study had "proven" that MTBE is not carcinogenic.

Thus Big Media already has its taglines prepared for the reversal of the ban on MTBE. Headlines will trumpet the fact that MTBE is not carcinogenic. Since its introduction to our environment is fairly recent, human data studies will not yet be compiled to the satisfaction of certain researchers in the scientific communities. Should MTBE be allowed to remain in our gasoline until 2005 or '06, I place most of the blame on the current lack of clear and timely guidelines from the Federal Government.

Issues regarding chemical substances, their creation, use, bio-remediation, etc. are of great interest because they illustrate how American policy has no Systems Operation on a large scale. Our most important policies to date lack both a comprehensive overview and everyday common sense. The State of California, indeed our entire nation, ignores this tremendous need. We are a vastly technologically oriented culture. We have put men on the moon. We can place one human's heart into the chest cavity of another. But in terms of the development of any sort of consistent set of guidelines with which our society might operate, we might as well be Neanderthals living in caves.

The experience with MTBE exemplifies how all the dedicated science in the world cannot bring about decent policies. The campaign finance laws in this country subvert the best interests of the people. They allow a governor facing re-election to sell out the need for a MTBE ban in return for millions of dollars in campaign donations from Big Oil. Next week, various California agencies and environmental groups will be meeting in Washington, DC They hope to propel the new administration into doing the "right thing". Will Bush display more wisdom that his predecessor has? Only time will tell.

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