Gas Pains


In March, the EPA announced a ban on the fuel additive Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a substance it had previously mandated. This ban followed nearly a year of low-key national panic, starting when California announced its own ban of the additive in April 1999 after the chemical began showing up in drinking water supplies from Santa Monica to Lake Tahoe.

Several other states have found MTBE in their water since then, and in January it earned the health-scare laurel: a scary 60 Minutes segment. A February study from Rutgers University found that MTBE can cause headaches and eye irritations in humans. The usual cancers in lab animals have also been created, under conditions nowhere near analogous to exposure in minuscule amounts through drinking water.

MTBE has been added to fuel in 16 states because it increases gasoline's oxygen content, helping it burn cleaner. Areas with low air qualities, as defined by the feds, are required by the EPA to have 2 percent oxygen content in their fuel. MTBE had been the cheapest and most efficient way to meet that clean air mandate.

The EPA now wants to replace the 2-percent rule with a rule forcing gas to contain a certain amount of material from renewable sources. With either the 2-percent rule with no MTBE, or the EPA's new proposal, farmers are cheering. Corn-based ethanol is the other leading oxyfuel option, and unlike MTBE (a petroleum byproduct), it's renewable. MTBE beat ethanol in the market because of lower shipping and mixing costs–a switch from MTBE to ethanol will be felt in the pocketbook at the filling station.

The EPA hasn't emphasized that MTBE is around in the first place because of its own oxyfuel mandate. Nor has it pointed out that the only way this stuff gets into water in the first place is along with the gasoline to which it's added. Gasoline in your water is a bad thing, MTBE notwithstanding.

In other words, the MTBE flap is the very model of modern environmental action: Not only is banning MTBE a reaction to a federally created problem, but getting rid of it won't make anyone's water safer to drink.