Iowa Public Television


The ABCs of MTBE

posted on October 10, 2003

The energy bill now before Congress has reached the conference committee stage, where House and Senate members try to work out differences. By most accounts, things are looking good for ethanol and other renewable fuels.

But there are sticking points. Among them: Whether to give ethanol a protective umbrella against future product-defect lawsuits. That's also the question hanging over another fuel additive, which once was the darling of the oxygenated fuels industry.


In the 90s, the federal government mandated that gasoline in certain cities with elevated pollution levels must contain oxygen. One of the most common fuel additives used to achieve this goal is the petroleum based Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether. Ironically, though effective in reducing air pollution, it was determined to be a source of groundwater pollution.

As previously reported on Market to Market, California banned the volatile chemical in 2000 after a study revealed it was contaminating drinking water. California is now being joined by New York and Connecticut in the move. These three states alone account for 42% of the nation's MTBE use.

Several other state governments are suing petroleum companies for the costs of contamination clean-up. This week, Governor Craig Benson of New Hampshire, became part of the movement when he sued 22 major oil companies seeking a remedy for the Granite State's MTBE-polluted groundwater.

The United States Congress has already begun work to phase out MTBE by enacting a renewable fuels standard. The measure, as currently written, will both ban the groundwater-polluting additive and give legal immunity to refiners. If the bill passes, it would invalidate several lawsuits, including the one being brought by New Hampshire. In the end, municipalities would be left with the cost of the cleanup.

The bill has several powerful Republican supporters, including Tom Delay of Texas, where most of the nation's MTBE is refined.

With the elimination of the petroleum-based additive, corn-based ethanol is poised to fill the gap. The most recent production figures show the ethanol industry is on track to make 2.8 billion gallons this year.

Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry. Dinneen says ethanol producers are ramping up to make five billion gallons per year by 2012 or sooner.

Bob Dinneen, Renewable Fuels Association: "We are poised with ethanol supplies. Our industry has expanded, and we are ready with the supply of ethanol needed. Weve built the infrastructure needed to get it to where it needs to be. The refiners are also ready with what they need to do to make this transition work. So absolutely, we will be there."


Tags: Congress energy policy news pollution