Meeting on statewide ban on MTBE |

Meeting on statewide ban on MTBE

The California Air Resources Board may take action today intended to expedite a statewide ban on MTBE.

“We’re proposing modifying our requirements for reformulated gas to carry out the ban of MTBE without sacrificing air quality,” said Allan Hirsch, assistant communications director of the state air board. “This will give refineries greater flexibility for making non-MTBE gas.”

CARB staff is recommending its board approve the proposal.

MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel oxygenate that California Gov. Gray Davis has ordered phased out of the state’s gas. It has contaminated as many as 14,000 sites in California, including numerous areas on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires oxygenates be used in certain areas with poor air quality, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, and most of California gas now contains significant levels of MTBE. Many agencies, including CARB, have urged EPA to waive the oxygenate requirement for California, which it is believed would speed up the oil industry’s ability to phase out MTBE.

If that doesn’t happen, and CARB’s action does, ethanol will replace MTBE as the oxygenate of choice in California.

“Even if EPA lifts the requirement, we still expect ethanol use would increase significantly,” Hirsch said. “But we still want refiners to have as much flexibility as possible to choose between ethanol and non-oxygenate gas.

“Having the maximum amount of choices out there would help minimize the cost increase and make gas prices more stable.”

MTBE is considered a possible human carcinogen by EPA, and at very low levels of contamination it renders water undrinkable. It travels more quickly in groundwater than any other gasoline compound and is costly to clean up.

Ethanol is toxic, but it breaks down much faster than MTBE.

Tosco Corp., one of California’s biggest oil companies, announced earlier this week it could beat the governor’s Dec. 31, 2002 phaseout deadline by two years if EPA lifted the oxygenate requirement.

Tosco was also the first oil company to provide MTBE-free fuel to the California side of the Tahoe Basin. Now more than half of the stations are MTBE-free.

STPUD, which has shut down more than a third of its wells and has spent more than $2 million to date because of the fuel additive, supports the action proposed for Thursday.

“We are all for anything that will apply more pressure to get MTBE out of gas, at the governor’s deadline or before,” said Dennis Cocking, STPUD information officer. “We have the same reaction as we did to Tosco’s announcement: We are excited about any petroleum company that says it can beat the deadline and not cause an increase in the price at the pumps.”

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