EPA: Gas additive is a pollutant

Published May 1, 2000

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under heavy pressure from Congress, petroleum groups, consumers, and state and local government officials, admitted in mid-March that the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) is a potent water polluter.

The agency, which had used the 1990 Clean Air Act to mandate MTBE’s addition to the nation’s gasoline supplies, has reversed course, saying now that its use must be discontinued.

“Threats posed by MTBE to water supplies in many areas of the country are a growing concern,” EPA administrator Carol Browner said on March 20. “Action by Congress is the fastest and best way to address this problem. We need to begin now to eliminate MTBE from gasoline. . . .”

While generally met with approval, EPA’s announcement is also disturbing on at least three counts.

EPA knew all along

The agency has known since at least 1988 that MTBE was likely to become a dangerous water pollutant, according to an Environment & Climate News investigation. Nevertheless, the agency lobbied hard for Congress to include an oxygenates mandate–widely interpreted to mean MTBE and ethanol–in the 1990 Clean Air Act. The mandate went into effect in 1992.

Yet EPA had years earlier notified its regional offices and state environmental agencies that MTBE was a growing danger to the nation’s water supply. The agency’s warning was published in April 1988 in a bulletin, Cleanup of Releases from Petroleum USTs [underground storage tanks], EPA/530/UST-88/001.

EPA noted in the 1988 bulletin, “only about 10 percent of U.S. gasoline contains MTBE,” yet MTBE is already “among the top 50 chemicals produced in the United States. MTBE is extremely soluble in water. . . . Because of its high solubility, MTBE is easily transported in groundwater away from a spill site.”

The EPA bulletin further noted, “the health effects of MTBE are generally poorly understood, especially at low levels. It has been classified variously as an irritant, as a possible central nervous system depressant and, formerly as having medicinal value.”

Over the years, EPA scientists had warned agency administrators that the additive would cause serious environmental problems while doing little to reduce air pollution. Those warnings, agency sources said, were repeated often but ignored.

Politically helpful for Gore

In making her announcement regarding the dangers of MTBE, Browner, a former campaign aide to Vice President Al Gore, said the solution is to “move to safer alternatives, like ethanol, because Americans deserve both clean air and clean water.”

Ethanol, already used as a gasoline additive but much less widespread than MTBE, is produced from corn, and might be produced from other grains. Farmers generally believe that expanding ethanol’s use would lift currently depressed prices for those commodities–a result sought after by farmers, a group with which Gore is not currently polling well.

Last fall, the National Research Council determined that oxygenates–be they MTBE or ethanol–do little to reduce air pollution. That research, generally ignored by the mainstream media and the Clinton-Gore administration, makes Browner’s recommendation appear even more like sound politics than sound science.

Rush may raise gas prices

Petroleum industry representatives say the switch from MTBE to another additive, or even to no additives at all, will require time-consuming and costly modifications to refinery equipment. Those costs will have to be passed on to the consumer.

If Congress’s solution to the MTBE mess is to mandate more widespread use of ethanol, expect gas prices to go higher still. Ethanol binds easily with water, which is always present in pipelines, and once diluted it is useless as a fuel additive. Unlike MTBE, then, ethanol must be shipped by truck, a far more costly method.

While inevitable, gasoline price hikes resulting from the shift away from MTBE won’t be felt anytime soon. The timing of Browner’s announcement, likely wrangling in Congress, and lead-times required by industry all work together to ensure that price increases won’t hit the pumps until after the November elections.