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California fights oxygenate requirement

South Lake Tahoe water district officials support California’s legal fight against a federal mandate to add ethanol to gasoline.

State officials filed suit Friday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which refused California’s request to be exempt from federal fuel additive standards. The state Air Resources Board claims oxygenates such as ethanol could actually increase pollution, as well as gas prices.

“We’re happy the state has taken on this challenge and hope it’s successful,” said Dennis Cocking, South Tahoe Public Utility District information officer. “I hope this will force the EPA to rethink the oxygenate requirement.”



Ethanol adds oxygen to gasoline to make it burn cleaner; however, state and local officials don’t believe the additive’s benefits are that great.

Representatives from two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Trust, said requiring ethanol could do more harm than good to California’s air.



Studies have shown that while ethanol blends reduce carbon monoxide levels, they increase levels of oxides of nitrogen, contributing to smog formation. The state claims widespread use of ethanol could increase ozone levels and airborne particulate matter, considered a risk factor for cancer.

However, federal officials have said the state hasn’t proven that complying with the oxygenate requirement would increase air pollution. The EPA has also contended that, under the Clean Air Act, it lacks the authority to grant California’s request for a waiver.

Cocking and state officials argue that California can meet federal air-quality goals with non-oxygenated, reformulated gasoline.

“You should not have to make the decision between clean air and clean water,” Cocking said. “You should be able to have both.”

Oxygenates have contaminated drinking water throughout the state and can be toxic.

The district had to shut down 12 drinking wells in 1997 due to MTBE, the only commercially available oxygenate besides ethanol. El Dorado County banned MTBE from Tahoe Basin gas tanks last year, and Gov. Gray Davis called for the additive to be phased out by Dec. 31, 2002.

If MTBE is replaced with ethanol, state officials say ethanol producers won’t be able to meet demand. California produces 5 million to 7 million gallons of ethanol a year, a far cry from the estimated 600 million to 900 million gallons it would need to comply with the rules.

Cocking said Midwest farmers, who raise corn for ethanol, are supportive of adding the oxygenate. The farm lobby stopped legislation to waive oxygenate requirements last year.

“President Clinton kind of ignored this, so the Bush Administration will have to deal with it,” Cocking said. “It was a political issue during the election that neither President Bush or Vice President Gore wanted to touch in fear of offending California or the farm lobby.”

Davis said ethanol supply problems could send gas prices skyrocketing.

The EPA’s oxygenate requirement is “a straitjacket mandate that will drive up gas prices while increasing air pollution,” Davis said in a statement. “The potential for harm to Californians, both economically and environmentally, leaves me no choice but to fight back with guns blazing.”


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