Showdown looms over gasoline additive |

Showdown looms over gasoline additive

Patrick McCartney

Editor’s note: Few programs to improve the nation’s air quality have generated as much controversy as the use of oxygenated fuel additives. The California Legislature is now debating the benefits of one additive that is used to reduce air pollution. Today, the Tahoe Daily Tribune begins a four-part series on the claims of advocates and critics of California’s “cleaner-burning gasoline.”

To supporters, California’s reformulated gasoline has resulted in the cleanest air in the state’s modern history, a triumph of “smart” gasoline over carbon monoxide, ozone and other air pollutants.

Yet, to critics, the oil industry’s fuel additive of choice is of questionable value, and poses an immediate threat to the health of the state’s residents and to its water supply.

At issue is an ether-related compound – methyl tertiary butyl ether, better known as MTBE – that is added to all gasoline sold in California. By increasing the oxygen content of gasoline, the additive improves combustion and reduces the amount of carbon monoxide discharged from a car’s tailpipe.

While an alternative additive, ethanol, is manufactured from farm crops, MTBE is the product of the oil industry itself, and is favored by the industry.

But critics contend the compound has led to complaints of respiratory problems and neurological symptoms such as dizziness wherever it has been used.

On Wednesday, two bills that would take a second look at the controversial additive, and hold oil companies responsible for water contamination, will be considered by the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

A compelling feature of the debate is the unusual alliances that have been forged on either side of the issue.

Joining forces in the state senate are Sen. Tom Hayden, a liberal Democrat from Santa Monica, and Sen. Richard Mountjoy, a conservative Republican from Arcadia.

On the other side of the fence is an unlikely alliance between the oil industry and the California Air Resources Board.

Mountjoy, whose SB 521 originally called for an outright ban of the fuel additive, said he first became concerned about MTBE when he soaked auto parts in gasoline containing the additive. Afterward, he developed a rash, and became interested in the health effects of the fuel additive.

“The more I looked into it, the more I became concerned about it. I feel very strongly that this stuff is absolutely dangerous,” Mountjoy said.

Yet, Mountjoy has met with mixed results in his campaign to publicize the risks of the clean-air additive. While he has marshaled the evidence and testimony of scientific critics of the additive, supporters of the oxygenated compound have countered with their own team of pro-additive scientists.

“What we have (promoting it) is a strange coalition between the (Wilson) administration’s Air Resources Board and the oil companies,” Mountjoy said.

Such talk does not impress an oil industry that at first opposed the mandated use of oxygenated additives, but has since come to embrace MTBE.

“I think a lot of the opposition to MTBE has been overblown and overstated,” said Jeff Wilson of the Western States Petroleum Producers. “For every one of their scientists, we can provide 20 scientists who see it differently.”

Susan Ritchie, a spokeswoman for the Oxygenated Fuel Association, characterized the scientists who consider MTBE a health threat to be out of the mainstream. Peer-reviewed publications, she said, have shown no great risk from the gasoline additive.

Yet, the voluminous evidence is not entirely clear-cut. A former member of the state Air Resources Board said he was unimpressed by the scientific evidence the board assembled before ordering the use of oxygenated additives statewide.

“The way the Air Resources Board shoved it through was extremely clever,” said Andrew Wortman, who was later forced to resign his position on the board. “The whole thing was rigged from the beginning to show only benefits. It was the most disgusting spectacle of commercial competition I’ve ever seen.”

On Monday, the Tribune will continue its look at MTBE, with articles on possible health effects, and on the benefit of the additive on California’s air quality.

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