Senate committee approves ban on MTBE

A Senate committee has approved a bill to phase out the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) over four years.

The Environment and Public Works Committee voted eleven to six to pass the Federal Reformulated Fuels Act of 2000, requiring the phase-out of MTBE, which was introduced at the end of the 1970’s to replace lead as an octane enhancer. The bill would also allow states to opt out of the 1990 Clean Air Act, under which MTBE has been used in larger quantities in order to help fuel burn more completely, thus reducing harmful emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has applauded the action, after its own efforts to bring about a ban on MTBE which, the EPA Blue Ribbon Panel has concluded, poses risks to drinking water (see related story). “But action by Congress clearly is the best and fastest way to address this threat,” said EPA Administrator Carol M Browner.

The Committee also approved provisions ensuring air quality, including a limit on the use of aromatics, as well as incentives for fuel efficient cars, and expanded renewable fuel use, such as ethanol.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the body which represents the US oil and natural gas industry, expressed disappointment with the Senate Committee’s decision to approve the bill. The proposal would be anti-consumer, imposing more stringent and unnecessary requirements on gasoline, said an API statement.

“In addition, such a mandate will put the safety of the nation’s highways at risk because of its potential impact on revenue for the nation’s highway trust fund,” said the API statement. “The estimated trust fund revenue deficit from this mandate would grow from today’s $837 million per year to $2.24 billion a year if fully implemented.”

Refining costs would also be increased, potentially passing higher prices on to the consumer, says the API, with the bill also creating the potential for further fragmentation of the fuel supply and distribution system.

Environmentalists are more enthusiastic. “This bill is a win all around – it protects air and water quality, supports farmers, and promotes renewable fuels that curb global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Elisa Lynch, Clean Fuels Campaign Director of the environmental campaign group, Bluewater Network.

“Coming on the day when world crude oil prices hit a 10 year high, the establishment of a Clean Alternative Fuel Programme is vitally important for our nation’s future energy policy,” said Eric Vaughn, President of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). “Tripling ethanol use is great news for American jobs, American farmers, American motorists, and the environment. When fully implemented, the programme will reduce the need for more than 600,000 barrels of oil per day, or roughly equivalent to the amount of oil the US currently imports daily from Iraq.”

“While we’re pleased to have come this far, there are still serious obstacles ahead. We’re concerned that powerful lobby interests will make a run at killing this legislation before Trent Lott sends it to the Senate floor,” said Dr. Russell Long, Executive Director of Bluewater Network. “The Clinton-Gore Administration will need to show leadership as well,” he concluded.

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