How MTBE gets to Tahoe |

How MTBE gets to Tahoe

Andy Bourelle

Why is MTBE in our gasoline and how do we get rid of it?

This is what the South Tahoe Public Utility District wanted to know, and, by inviting the California Air Resources Board to its regular meeting Thursday, tried to find out.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a synthetic chemical oxygenated gasoline additive which comprises about 11 percent of the gasoline used in California.

The reason MTBE is in Lake Tahoe gasoline is a “complicated interplay” of state and federal laws, CARB officials said.

Oxygen-content or oxygenated gasoline is required by the federal Clean Air Act in about 70 percent of the state, in locations that are high pollution areas and must follow federal reformulated gasoline requirements, according to Kurt Karperos, director of the CARB’s intergovernmental affairs office.

Oxygenated gasoline is not required in South Lake Tahoe. However, it is required in Sacramento, where Lake Tahoe’s gasoline comes from.

Dean Simeroth, director of CARB’s critical pollutants branch, said the utility district might be able to obtain gasoline from San Francisco, where oxygenated fuels are not required. Because of shipping, however, the cost of gasoline in South Lake Tahoe likely would increase.

Gasoline is produced in Sparks. However, it does not comply with California clean air requirements, according to Simeroth.

MTBE is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible cancer-causing agent. At low levels, between 15 and 40 parts per billion, people can detect MTBE in water. It smells and tastes like turpentine.

Karperos said California’s cleaner-burning gasoline does not necessarily refer to MTBE-enriched gasoline. He said CARB is pushing for federal legislation that would allow “flexibility” in emission requirements.

Therefore, oxygenates such as MTBE would not be required in the highly polluted parts of the state and consequently produced at a majority of the state’s refineries.

“All (the benefits of cleaner-burning gasoline) can be met without the oxygenated gasoline,” Simeroth said.

The CARB officials encouraged STPUD to support U.S. Senate Bill 1576, which would exempt California from the federal law that requires the use of MTBE or similar oxygenates in the California regions with severe air pollution.

However, several STPUD board and staff members said they felt it could be a long time before the bill passed. In the meantime, what does the district do?

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