California sues EPA over ethanol requirement |

California sues EPA over ethanol requirement

LOS ANGELES (AP) – California officials are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in hopes of reversing a decision requiring the state to use what they consider a needlessly expensive and polluting gasoline additive.

The lawsuit, filed late Friday afternoon in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, calls on the agency to waive rules that effectively will require ethanol to be added to most of the state’s gasoline. State officials announced the move in a conference call with reporters Sunday.

Gov. Gray Davis has ordered that the only oxygenate available besides ethanol – MTBE – be phased out by January 2003 because it pollutes ground water. State officials argue that California can meet federal air-quality goals with non-oxygenated, reformulated gasoline.

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.”

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. That would make the state dependent on the Midwest, which grows the corn used to make most ethanol.

Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said that because California’s ethanol needs represent a huge portion of the roughly 2 billion gallons expected to be produced this year, the chances are great that supply problems could send prices skyrocketing.

According to state estimates, the ethanol switch could add as little as 2 or 3 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline, but supply problems could send pump prices soaring 50 cents or more.

Although ethanol producers have insisted they’ll be able to handle the increased demand, Hickox said, ”It would be a reckless play on our part to assume that is the case.”

Representatives of two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Trust, joined state officials in the press conference and agreed that requiring ethanol could do more harm than good to California’s famously polluted air.

Studies have shown that while ethanol blends reduce carbon monoxide levels, they increase levels of oxides of nitrogen, which are of greater concern in most of California.

”It’s not sound science – it’s political science,” Clean Air Trust Executive Director Frank O’Donnell said of the EPA’s refusal to grant the waiver.

EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco did not return several calls seeking comment Sunday.

But they have contended that under the Clean Air Act, they lack the authority to grant the state’s request. Federal officials have said the state hasn’t proven that complying with the oxygenate requirement would result in a net increase of air pollution.

Hickox said filing deadlines meant the suit had to be submitted Friday, but he is continuing to examine options to deal with the federal agency’s rejection of the state’s waiver request last month.

Davis has given Hickox until late September to come up with recommendations, which could include delaying the MTBE phase-out or pressing for more in-state production of ethanol using material such as rice straw instead of corn.

The state also is trying to get legislation passed in Congress that would allow the waiver, but O’Donnell said Bush administration officials have tried to block those efforts.

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