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Update on Reformulated Gasoline and MTBE (9-13-00)

The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required areas that did not meet certain air quality standards to incorporate oxygenates such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethanol into gasoline to reduce Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) emissions.  While MTBE is widely credited with significantly improving the nation's air quality, it has recently been recognized that it is also a major contributor to groundwater pollution.  The EPA and Congress must now determine how to balance the importance of clean air and clean water.  Recent publicity about the leaking of MTBE into groundwater aquifers has prompted legislators from the Midwest to push for a federal endorsement of ethanol.  Many law makers feel that the the oxygenates rule should be dropped all together, while others note that more scientific data is needed before an actual solution can be found.  The U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) has a website that provides information on MTBE and water resources in the National Assessment of Volatile Organic Chemicals in Major Aquifer Systems and Rivers.

Most Recent Action
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up S. 2962, a bill introduced by Chairman Bob Smith (R-NH), on September 7th. Similar to several other bills introduced in this Congress to phase out the use of MTBE, S. 2962 would amend the Clean Air Act to allow governors, once they notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, "to waive oxygen content requirements for reformulated gasoline" in their state.  Several amendments were offered during the committee markup but few passed.  The committee passed the amended bill in a 11-6 vote.  It is not clear if the bill will make it onto the calendar for Senate floor debate before the 106th Congress closes in October, especially with Congress frantically working on the mandatory appropriations bills.      (9/13/00)

Current Congress
During the 106th Congress, several bills related to MTBE have been introduced.  These bills await action from the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate, and from the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and Environment in the House of Representatives:

Senate Bills:
S. 1886 This bill amends the Clean Air Act to permit the Governor of a State to waive the oxygen content requirement for reformulated gasoline.  It also encourages development of voluntary standards to prevent and control releases of MTBE from underground storage tanks.  The bill was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) on November 9, 1999.

S. 2233:  The MTBE Elimination Act.  This bill prohibits the use of MTBE, and provides funding to remediate groundwater that is contaminated by it.  It was introduced by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) on March 9, 2000.

S. 2546:  Clean Air and Water Preservation Act of 2000.  This bill amends the Clean Air Act to prohibit the use of MTBE, provides flexibility within the oxygenate requirement of the reformulated gasoline program of the EPA, and promotes the use of renewable ethanol.  It was introduced by Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO) on May 11, 2000.

S. 2723:  This bill amends the Clean Air Act to permit the governor of a state to waive oxygen content requirements for reformulated gasoline, encourages development of voluntary standards to prevent and control releases of MTBE from underground storage tanks, and establishes a program to phase out the use of MTBE.  It was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) on June 13, 2000.

S. 2962:  This bill, introduced by Bob Smith (R-NH), would allow the governor of a state to waive Clean Air Act oxygenated fuel mandates, ban MTBE within four years unlesss EPA deems unnecessary, and authorizes appropriations for state grants not to exceed $200 million from the leaking underground storage tank fund to be used for cleanup and treatment of MTBE contamination.

House Bills:
H.R. 1367:  This bill is to amend section 211 of the Clean Air Act that prohibits the use of the fuel additive MTBE in gasoline within three years.  This bill was introduced by Rep Bob Franks (R-NJ) on April 12, 1999.

H.R. 1398:  This bill amends certain sections of the Clean Air Act to prohibit the use of MTBE.  It also requires the administration to determine through scientific testing and peer review that a fuel additive does not have adverse effects on the public before it can be registered under fuel regulation provisions.  The bill was introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) on April 14, 1999.

H.R. 1705:  This bill waives the requirement that all gasoline in ozone non-attainment areas must be composed of 2.0% oxygen by weight when other forms of mixed gasoline can achieve the same or better results.  The bill also prohibits the use of MTBE, and directs the National Academies of Science to conduct a study regarding the effects of oxygenates on public health and the environment.  The bill was introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (R-NJ) in May of 1999.

H.R. 3449:  This bill amends the Clean Air Act to provide for a State waiver of the requirements concerning the oxygen content of gasoline.  It was introduced by Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) on November 18, 1999.

H.R. 3536:  This bill mandates an NIH study regarding the health effects of MTBE.  It also requires the administration to start a program studying the removal of MTBE from the subsurface, and requires public water systems to monitor for MTBE in their groundwater wells.  The bill was introduced in late January, 2000 by Rep. Bob Franks (R-NJ).

H.R. 3798:  This bill amends the Clean Air Act to prohibit the use of MTBE as a fuel additive.  It also amends the Solid Waste Disposal Act to accelerate the cleanup of MTBE released from leaking underground storage tanks, and amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to assist communities with MTBE contamination in drinking water supplies.  The bill was introduced by Rep. Michael Forbes (D-NY) on March 1, 2000.

H.R. 4011:  The Clean Air and Water Preservation Act of 2000.  This bill amends section 211 of the Clean Air Act to prohibit the use of MTBE, provides flexibility within the oxygenate requirement of the EPA's Reformulated Gasoline Program, and promotes the use of renewable ethanol.  This bill was introduced by Rep. Greg Ganske (R-IA) on March 16, 2000.

H.R. 4120:  The Safe Water and Clean Air Attainment Act.  This bill amends section 211 of the Clean Air Act to permit any State to waive the oxygenate content requirement for reformulated gasoline if the state implementation plan is adequate to attain and maintain the national ambient air quality standards in the absence of that requirement.  This bill was introduced by Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) on March 29, 2000.

H.R. 4303:  The MTBE elimination Act.  This bill amends the Toxic Substances Control Act to prohibit the use of MTBE as a fuel additive after three years and provides for remediation of water contaiminated by MTBE.  This bill was introduced by Rep. Thomas Ewing (R-IL) on April 13, 2000.

On March 20th, EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman unveiled a proposal to phase out the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive.  Included in this proposal was the framework for legislation that would reduce or eliminate the use of MTBE, and encourage the use of renewable biomass fuels such as ethanol.  Along with the proposed legislation was a regulatory plan for EPA to ban MTBE through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  (3/20/00)

On June 14, 2000, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety held a hearing on the environmental benefits and impacts of ethanol under the Clean Air Act (CAA).  This hearing centered on the problems associated with the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive, whether or not an oxygenate requirement in RFG as mandated in 1990 under the CAA is ultimately beneficial, how MTBE should be phased out, and whether or not ethanol is a viable alternative to be used in replacement of MTBE.  According to Stephen Gatto, president and CEO of BC International Corp., "The use of ethanol, particularly biomass ethanol, is a win-win environmental and economic solution to the MTBE problem.  Ethanol use contributes to improved air quality and does not pose the same dangers to our water resources as does MTBE, proven by decades of ethanol fuel use in the Midwest...Ethanol is also favorable because, unlike petroleum-based alternatives, such as alkylates, ethanol means increased use of renewable resources, and reduced reliance on imported oil and ensuing gasoline price spikes."  Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Blakeman Early of the American Lung Association argue that key environmental problems associated with ethanol need to be further studied before mandating its use--such as, the effect it has on benzene emissions, its volatility, the increased emission levels of aldehydes, and whether or not its use reduces other toxic air pollutants other than carbon monoxide.  Full written testimony is available at the Senate Committee website and a summary is available on AGI's Clean Air Act hearing summary webpage(8/03/00)

Background
MTBE has been used in the U.S. since 1979, initially as a replacement for lead in gasoline.  In 1990, when the Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments were passed and the Federal Reformulated Gasoline (RFG) Program was established, MTBE became a standard addition to reformulated gasoline in areas that did not meet air quality standards.  MTBE has been credited with drastically increasing the country's air quality by reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds, CO, and other mobile source air toxics.  Under the CAA,  RFG is required to contain 2% oxygen by weight.  Most RFG contains MTBE, while a smaller percentage is a mixture of ethanol.

Attention has recently been brought to the fact that MTBE, a possible carcinogen,  has been detected in 5 to 10% of the nations drinking water sources.  While most of these sources contain MTBE at levels well below those that could cause concerns for public health, they still taste and smell differently than clean water sources.  In general, MTBE in the subsurface comes from leaking underground storage tanks.  Because it is highly water soluble and breaks down very slowly, it is more likely to contaminate groundwater than most other components of gasoline.

In November of 1998, the EPA appointed a blue ribbon panel to study the effects of MTBE and other gasoline oxygenates on air quality, water quality, and the stability of fuel supply and cost.  They released a final set of findings and recommendations in July 1999.  These documents are available on the Panel's website.  Further information about MTBE in the subsurface can be found on the EPA MTBE website and through their Office of Underground Storage Tanks.  A study being conducted at Rutgers University also has helpful information on up to date research.


Sources:  Thomas, hearing testimony, House and Senate committee websites, EPA website, This Week in Washington by the Water Environment Federation, and EENews.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by 1999-2000 AGI/AAPG Geoscience Policy Intern Alison Alcott, 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience and Public Policy Intern Nathan Morris, and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs.

Posted April 27, 2000; Last updated September 13, 2000


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