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EPA moving too slow, MTBE foes

It will be at least summer before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decides whether to give California an exemption to a rule in the federal Clean Air Act which many believe is making it more difficult to get MTBE out of the state’s gas.

Some California officials, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, believe summer is too far away for the action.

“We’ve always felt they could be acting on that much faster, much sooner,” said Howard Gantman, spokesman for Feinstein, D-Calif.



The federal Clean Air Act requires cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline be sold in areas with bad air quality problems, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. The act prescribes a formula for reformulated gasoline, including the requirement that it have at least 2 percent oxygen.

California Gov. Gray Davis last year ordered the use of MTBE be phased out of the state, and many oil companies have indicated they could accomplish that goal much more quickly without that requirement.




Feinstein and other members of Congress are trying to push bills through that would change the act on a nationwide basis. As part of his executive order of March 1999, however, Davis also requested EPA grant a waiver of the 2 percent oxygenate requirement just to California.

“Our position,” said Dennis Cocking, information officer for the South Tahoe Public Utility District, “is probably the most useful thing (EPA) could do at this time is grant the waiver Gov. Davis was asking for.”

EPA officials have recommended Congress lift the national requirement. Action specific to California isn’t happening so fast.

Robert Perciasepe, assistant administrator of EPA, last week sent a letter to the California Environmental Protection Agency saying it would be summer before the federal government made a decision on the waiver request.

“The agency must conduct an independent evaluation of the data and modeling as well as the other information submitted by the state in support of its request for a waiver from the federal (reformulated gas) oxygenate requirement,” the letter states. “We hope to complete our assessment by early summer. Based on our productive discussions with (the California Air Resources Board) up to this point, we fully expect that we will meet this schedule.”

Ed Fong, communications director for California EPA, said state officials believe the federal agency is considering the decision carefully.

“There have been a number of correspondences over the past several months: EPA requesting clarification or additional information, which is quite technical in some cases, in our request for a waiver,” Fong said. “We have supplied them with the information. The fact that they’ve asked for the information leads us to conclude they are giving it very serious consideration. That is very encouraging.”

Feinstein has repeatedly urged EPA to grant the waiver sooner, and she is the co-author of a bill that would give Davis, or any other state governor, the authority to waive the requirement as long as the gasoline continues to meet other Clean Air Act requirements.

Resulting from the oxygenate requirement in the Clean Air Act, refiners have primarily used MTBE for reformulated gasoline in California, where the additive usually comprises more than 10 percent of the state’s gas.

If the federal requirement stays in effect, refiners must go to the expense of finding other oxygenate alternatives in order to meet the governor’s phaseout deadline of December 2002. Officials have said removing the requirement would give oil companies more flexibility in eliminating the controversial gas additive.

A University of California, Davis study completed in 1998 found that oxygenates such as MTBE make little difference in preserving air quality.

States the report: “MTBE and other oxygenates were found to have no significant effect on exhaust emissions from advanced technology vehicles .. there is no significant additional air quality benefit to the use of oxygenates such as MTBE in reformulated gasoline, relative to alternative (California reformulated gas) non-oxygenated formulations.”

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – has increasingly ruined groundwater supplies. As many as 14,000 sites have been contaminated by MTBE in the state, and more than one-third of STPUD’s wells have been closed, creating mandatory water-usage restrictions at South Shore for the past two summers.


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