Bush administration says it may be time to eliminate gas additive mandate
WASHINGTON (AP) – Barely a week after the Bush administration said California must continue using gasoline additives to reduce air pollution, a top federal environmental official suggested it may be time for Congress to eliminate the mandate everywhere.
Linda Fisher, the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy administrator, made the statement during a hearing Thursday on whether gas prices would increase because of last week’s decision. The EPA denied California’s request to opt out of a federal requirement that gas sold in the smoggiest cities contain oxygen to make it burn cleaner.
The state is phasing out natural gas-based MTBE, the most widely used oxygenate, because it has been found to pollute groundwater. California argued it could meet federal clean-air goals without being forced to use the only oxygenate alternative, ethanol, typically made from corn and not as clean-burning as MTBE.
State officials fear there will not be enough ethanol to supply their enormous market, meaning higher gas prices for motorists.
The EPA concluded there was enough uncertainty about whether emissions would increase that the law gave it no choice but to deny California’s request.
But in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Fisher said the oxygenate requirement may be outdated.
She stressed the clean-air gains of the federal reformulated gas program, but said mandating oxygen content may no longer be the best way to ensure emission reductions, a diverse fuel supply and the other aims of the program. Only Congress can change that requirement, she said.
”We know that some refiners can produce clean fuels without the use of oxygenates,” Fisher said. ”Thus, there may be better ways to achieve these goals.”
Eleven states have banned MTBE and at least a dozen more are considering it. Keeping the oxygenate requirement then would likely be a massive boost for the farm state-based ethanol industry.
The industry insists it can meet any supply and transportation challenges, and that adding ethanol to gas provides environmental benefits.
But lifting the requirement had the support of the panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, its ranking Republican, Sen. Frank Murkowksi of Alaska, and several others. They expressed doubt about the ethanol industry’s ability to meet the new demand without driving up prices, as well as about the fuel’s clean-air performance.
The hearing also reflected growing sentiment that another way to prevent spikes in gas prices would be to simplify the nation’s patchwork of fuels.
In addition to areas required to enter the federal reformulated gas program, several cities voluntarily take part. Many states also have layered their own fuel regulations on top of the federal ones.
The EPA is developing recommendations on how Congress should streamline the system. Fisher had no specifics, saying the agency’s study should be available to Congress by fall.
Meantime, a draft of a Transportation Department report concludes that a federal program aimed at increasing use of renewable fuels such as ethanol has actually driven up conventional gas consumption, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
In return for producing vehicles capable of running on conventional gas or a nearly pure ethanol blend, automakers receive credits that reduce the average gas mileage of their entire fleets – meaning they then are allowed to sell many more gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and minivans.
But only 101 of the nation’s 176,000 gas stations sell the 85 percent ethanol blend known as E85, meaning only 1 percent of the fuel used by the 1.2 million dual-use vehicles is renewable. Likewise, since the trade-off allows more SUVs to hit the market, the net effect has been a 772 million-gallon increase in conventional gas consumption, the report found.
Nonetheless, the study recommends continuing the program, which is set to expire in 2004, but only if it can be changed to increase the use of ethanol in the vehicles.
On the Net:
Senate Energy Committee: http://www.senate.gov/energy/
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov
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