President Bush wants to roll back the deadline for switching from MTBE to ethanol as a gasoline additive. Unfortunately, MTBE is potentially dangerous, especially to those of us who drink well water.
Ethanol, a kind of alcohol often derived from fermenting grain or corn, is often blended with gasoline to reduce the carbon-monoxide emissions that are generated while driving. Many states mandate the use of some chemical in gasoline to do just that.
As recently as 2003, most reformulated gasoline was blended with an artificial chemical called methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, instead of ethanol. That option became less popular when MTBE was shown to be accumulating in drinking water supplies (At best, the substance causes a peculiar smell; at worst, it may be carcinogenic.) Moreover, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 doesn’t shield the makers of MTBE from lawsuits alleging contamination of the water supply; that was all the energy companies needed to get on board the ethanol train. (As added motivation to make the switch, MTBE has been banned or legally restricted in at least 17 states, including New York and California, which accounted for 39.2% of the country’s MTBE consumption, according to the Department of Energy.)
The U.S. consumes about nine million barrels of gasoline a day, roughly three million of which is reformulated to burn cleaner. Today, two million of those reformulated barrels contain ethanol, while the remaining million barrels still contain MTBE, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. But that’s changing. In fact, most states along the Northeast corridor — from Virginia up to New Hampshire — are making that transition now (with the exception of Connecticut and New York, which banned MTBE in October 2003 and January 2004, respectively). It’s not going smoothly.
One of the downsides of ethanol is that it’s extremely difficult to transport across great distances because it can’t be moved through a pipeline. Since the vast majority of ethanol production is concentrated in the Midwest, ethanol must be shipped via barge, railway or truck to blending facilities around the country.
Now, at the same time that energy companies are figuring out how best to transport ethanol from the Midwest to those hard-to-reach states making the switch, the entire country is shifting from a winter blend of gasoline to a summer blend, which is less likely to evaporate harmful chemicals during the warmer months. Each of those transitions can require that energy companies put extra trucks on the road (some hauling ethanol; others hauling summer-blended gas), but energy companies only have so many trucks. As a result, there were gas shortages earlier this month in places like Dallas and Norfolk, Va., which are transitioning to ethanol from making the MTBE.
The big oil companies like to say that federal regulators made them use MTBE to oxygenate gas and make it burn cleaner. Not true. The feds required an oxygenation agent, but it was the oil companies that chose MTBE, because it was cheaper than other alternatives. But it turned out to be dangerous, and New York and other states banned it.
Last year, as the Senate considered a huge energy bill, Schumer did a good job of killing language that would have protected oil companies from liability in MTBE lawsuits. Now, he wants to get some help for homeowners who still use water from private wells….
Schumer has asked the federal EPA to start a broad effort to identify MTBE spills and work with owners of private wells. He points out that a 1999 panel recommended steps that the EPA should take, but the agency hasn’t delivered.