California puts questionmark to usage of MTBE

Sep 13, 1997 02:00 AM

California recently passed a bill that could jeopardise the use of MTBE, a widely used gasoline additive the oil industry has spent billions of dollars to produce.
The bill, passed by the Senate 34 to 0, requires a 15-month study of MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether) to determine if its health and environmental risks outweigh the benefits of helping gasoline burn cleaner.
Opponents of MTBE, which include some toxicologists and activists representing groups of motorists, charge that the chemical causes cancer and respiratory ailments and reduces fuel efficiency. Supporters claim MTBE is a safe and effective weapon in the fight against pollution.
"We will let the study decide what is fact or fiction," said Richard Mountjoy, the Republican senator who sponsored the bill, which originally called for an outright ban.
The California governor will decide to ban or retain MTBE -- used in about one-third of U.S. gasoline and all that burned in California since the early 1990s -- based on thestudy's findings.
MTBE has increasingly been used in gasoline during the past five years to help states meet the oxygen requirements of the federal Clean Air Act. A high oxygen content in gasoline is believed to cut carbon monoxide emission in the winter and reduce ozone, which causes smog in the summer.
At issue for the fuel industry, is nearly $ 4 billion U.S. oil companies spent in California alone to retool refineries to produce MTBE, the most popular oxygenate in the U.S.
According to state statistics, Californians demand nearly 100,000 barrels per day of MTBE, or 64 % of the total U.S. market.
"The oil industry, in their minds, have no choice but to use MTBE. Because of the money they invested they are not going to walk away from it easily," said a market watcher. Jeff Wilson, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said his group is confident the study will prove MTBE is safe and effective.
"Hopefully the study will put the controversy about MTBE to rest," said Wilson, pointing to state statistics that show cleaner-burning gasoline has removed three million pounds of pollution every day -- the emissions reduction equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the California's roads.
But since the use of MTBE increased, several state health officials have received reports of people suffering headaches, dizziness and nausea associated with the chemical.
Last year, half of Santa Monica, California's drinking water wells were contaminated with MTBE, raising concern over the chemical's ability to resist degradation in water and soil.
"There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows MTBE helps the environment. It is a very hazardous fuel," said Dr. Myron Mehlman, a New Jersey-based toxicologist. Mehlman along with several others chemists argue that vehicle technology has been the dominate factor in improving the way gasoline burns, making MTBE unneeded.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board continue to stand behind MTBE and the other oxygenates as important tools in the fight to cut pollution.
"Peak levels of groundlevel smog were 18 % lower last year than in 1994 and 1995, half of that due to cleaner burning gas," said CARB spokesman Allan Hirsch. "California made other improvements to its cleaner burning gasoline but MTBE was certainly a part of the overall formula," Hirsh added.

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