MTBE ban proposed in Michigan

Published July 1, 2000

The Michigan legislature has taken up a bill that would ban the water-polluting gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE).

Introduced by Rep. Larry Julian (R-85th District), the bill simply states, “Beginning January 1, 2002, the Director [of the Department of Environmental Quality] shall not permit the use of the additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether in this state.”

Julian’s proposal is the latest in a series of state initiatives to rectify the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s error in mandating the use of gasoline oxygenates, such as MTBE, in an attempt to improve air quality. State action began last year when California Governor Gray Davis issued an executive order calling for the phase-out of MTBE in his state.

The anti-MTBE movement presents a potential election-year challenge for Vice President Al Gore. For eight years, his hand-picked EPA director and former campaign aide, Carol Browner, has championed the use of MTBE–even though EPA’s own scientists have known for nearly 14 years that the additive is a dangerous and persistent water pollutant. Last year, the National Research Council deemed oxygenates virtually useless in reducing automobile exhaust emissions.

While Browner has recently called for the elimination of MTBE, years of ignoring the warnings of scientists have allowed the additive to became a serious problem in drinking water supplies nationwide.

Michigan’s dilemma

Michigan offers a typical example of the dilemma faced nationwide. Oxygenates such as MTBE are mandated for use only in areas not in attainment of EPA clean air standards, and Michigan has no such areas. Yet scores of wells throughout the state are polluted by the chemical which, once leaked from storage tanks, is nearly impossible to remove from groundwater.

Although fully in compliance with clean air standards, Michigan suffers the consequences of EPA’s oxygenate mandate because, according to petroleum industry sources, refineries cannot make two types of gasoline, one with and one without MTBE, at the same time. If a refinery is manufacturing MTBE fuel for an area where it is mandated, all of that refinery’s customers get that fuel.

Moreover, industry representatives explained at a hearing hosted by Michigan Rep. Julian, the industry cannot control which fuel is sent where via pipelines. Thus, industry officials argued, if Michigan were to ban MTBE or phase out its use over a short period of time, the state would face severe gasoline shortages.

The California solution

California’s experience with an MTBE ban, however, do not bear out the industry’s warnings. California must still use MTBE in a few non-attainment areas, such as southern California and the San Francisco Bay area. But when Davis ordered a four-year phase-out of MTBE in the rest of the state, two refiners, Chevron and Tosco, began supplying MTBE-free gasoline within weeks.

A key part of the solution continues to evade even California, however: how to remove existing contamination from the underground aquifers supplying hundreds of the state’s drinking water wells. MTBE combines with water much more readily than do other additives, making it practically impossible to separate from water once the two are mixed.

Unlike other additives, which tend to break down over a relatively brief time period, MTBE persists in the environment, its concentrations reduced only by dilution with more water. As reported by Environment & Climate News in May, EPA was well aware of MTBE’s properties even while it was lobbying Congress in the late 1980s to include the oxygenate mandate in the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Ethanol: A non-solution

While Michigan’s Julian wisely avoided directing a substitution of ethanol for MTBE, federal legislators appear more willing to substitute one problem for another in the name of political gain.

Senators Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), both with large ethanol constituencies, have introduced a bill that would eliminate the oxygenates mandate but require increased use of ethanol, under the guise of reducing demand for imported oil and increasing use of “renewable” energy sources.

According to automotive experts, expanding the use of ethanol, which now accounts for just 1.3 percent of U.S. gasoline, may worsen air pollution in several ways.

Gasoline with ethanol evaporates much more readily than does non-ethanol gasoline, adding pollution directly into the atmosphere. At the same time, ethanol reduces by approximately 2 to 3 percent the energy produced by gasoline, meaning more fuel must be burned for each mile traveled.

Ethanol is also energy-intensive in its production and distribution. In its simplest terms, the additive is produced by cooking corn. In addition to the energy that cooking requires, there is the energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest, and transport the corn to ethanol plants–almost all done with trucks, a few barges, and no pipelines.

Finally, ethanol cannot be economically and cleanly shipped by pipeline from the Midwest cornbelt, where it is produced, to consumers outside the region. Ethanol picks up water in pipelines, making trucks–more costly and energy-consuming than pipelines–as the most common means of transport.

Editor’s note: Randall’s ongoing coverage of the unfolding MTBE story for Environment & Climate News earned him an invitation to testify before the Michigan House Committee on Agriculture and Resources Management regarding the proposed Michigan ban on MTBE. He has subsequently discussed possible courses of action with legislative and industry representatives.