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Fuel additive will be studied at Lake Tahoe

Patrick McCartney

A California bill that would subject a controversial fuel additive to a yearlong health and water pollution study now calls for a study of the additive’s impact on Lake Tahoe.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, was approved by the Assembly appropriations committee Friday, and may be voted on by the full Assembly today.

In a last-minute change to the bill, Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante asked Mountjoy to include a provision to see whether the additive – methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE – has affected the environment of Lake Tahoe or the health of its residents.

According to a Mountjoy aide, Bustamante was prompted to ask for the changes by a University of Nevada-Reno study that showed significant gasoline contamination of Lake Tahoe during the Fourth of July weekend.

According to preliminary findings by Professor Glenn Miller, MTBE and other gasoline constituents were found in higher concentrations at Lake Tahoe than expected, including several readings above state health guidelines.

The bill also calls for the University of California to examine the risks and benefits to human health posed by MTBE, and to compare that to the other three oxygenated additives available in California – ethanol, ETBE and TAME.

While Mountjoy’s bill survived its final committee hearing, a phalanx of oil industry lobbyists were successful in killing a provision that removed barriers to the use of ethanol as an alternative to MTBE in California.

Ethanol producers had protested for years that the California Air Resources Board had undermined a 1991 law that authorized the use of ethanol as a fuel additive in California. Two weeks ago, ethanol backers added a provision to the Mountjoy bill that would set aside the CARB rule and again allow the use of ethanol.

At Friday’s appropriations committee hearing, however, a well-prepared oil industry mounted a counteroffensive that resulted in the removal of the ethanol provision.

One legislative insider said the appropriations vote was the second attempt by the oil industry to scuttle the bill’s ethanol language. A previous attempt to send the bill back to the Assembly’s transportation committee – where it might have been killed – was defeated behind the scenes.

“For about two weeks, we had a battle over the use of MTBE and ethanol,” said an Assembly aide sympathetic to the ethanol industry who asked to not be identified. “We had two little victories and then a loss.”

Nancy Leneis, a senior aide to Mountjoy, said the decision by the appropriations committee to strip the ethanol provision from the bill was a display of oil industry clout.

“There were so many industry lobbyists here, they were packed in the hall like sardines,” Leneis said.

Neil Koehler, whose Rancho Cucamonga company Parallel Products produces ethanol from agricultural waste, said the coalition of ethanol suppliers and environmentalists was no match for the oil industry’s lobbying.

“We got absolutely slaughtered by an army of oil industry lobbyists,” Koehler said. “It was a naked power play.”

If approved, Mountjoy’s bill calls for California’s governor to decide whether MTBE should be phased out from use in California if the University of California study concludes that the additive poses a threat to public health and the state’s drinking water supply.


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