Critics say state made additive a monopoly
California lawmakers voted last week to study the health and water pollution effects of a controversial fuel additive.
Now, ethanol producers have accused the state of creating artificial barriers to the use of ethanol as a safer additive, and giving producers of methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, a virtual monopoly over the oxygenated additive market.
But state air quality officials and a representative of oil producers say the use of ethanol would worsen California’s air pollution, and defend the state’s limit on its use as an additive.
At stake is the market for oxygenated additives, which are required in gasoline by federal and state law as a means of lowering emissions of carbon monoxide by improving combustion. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated the wintertime use of oxygenated additives in 1991 for areas with high carbon monoxide levels, California extended the mandate last year for the entire state all year long.
Lost in the ongoing debate over possible health and water pollution risks of MTBE has been the de facto ban in California of its most significant commercial rival, ethanol. California is the only state in the country that has effectively banned the use of ethanol as a clean-air additive, say ethanol producers. When the California Air Resources Board limited the amount of oxygen in the state’s gasoline to 2 percent in 1991, the rule barred the use of ethanol in concentrations that would result in lower evaporation rates.
“California is the only state in the nation that limits the amount of oxygen in gasoline, which effectively prohibits the use of ethanol,” said Tom Koehler of the National Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers. “Other states, and the federal EPA, say more oxygen is better.”
Andrew Wortman, a member of the Air Resources Board at the time has criticized the board for undermining the use of ethanol in California.
“Under no circumstances were we going to give natural gas or ethanol a chance,” Wortman said. “We declared ethanol to be toxic. To make sure nobody would consider ethanol, the executive staff started a campaign against it. The game was on.”
Yet, state air quality officials say allowing higher concentrations of ethanol would produce harmful pollution from the evaporation of gas during fueling and when cars are idling.
“The higher the vapor pressure you allow, the more pollution you allow,” said Allan Hirsch, an Air Resources Board spokesman.
Citing California EPA figures, Jeff Wilson of the Western States Petroleum Association said the use of ethanol would increase emissions by 70 to 80 tons a day.
“Simple math showed you lose 70 to 80 tons of emission benefits per day, which would put the state out of its Clean Air implementation plan,” Wilson said.
Mike Wang, director of environmental operations for the association, said MTBE is a better additive because it does not increase vapor pressure that leads to greater evaporation.
“In all cases, MTBE is a better emission-reduction compound,” Wang said.
But the ethanol lobby said the the use of ethanol, which is produced from agricultural waste, more than compensates for greater evaporation through the reduction of carbon monoxide and other emissions. Yet, at every step, the industry has been outflanked politically by oil producers who prefer MTBE.
In 1991, the California Legislature passed a bill specifically authorizing the use of ethanol in California at levels up to 10 percent. Weeks later, however, the Air Resources Board approved the cap on gasoline oxygen content that served to overturn the legislative intent.
“As an industry, we felt betrayed,” said Cindy Hasenjager, executive director of the California Renewable Fuels Council. “We had negotiated with CARB and come up with a compromise that pleased everybody.”
Last month, ethanol producers managed to attach an amendment to a bill calling for a study of MTBE that would have removed the regulatory ban on ethanol. But the amendment was stripped from the final bill by the Assembly appropriations committee. The ethanol industry will try again in the next legislative session that begins Jan. 1, Koehler said.
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