Will others follow Tosco’s anti-MTBE lead?
South Shore officials went through a roller-coaster ride of emotions last week concerning MTBE’s future in the Lake Tahoe Basin, which ultimately resulted in joy over news that one oil company plans to provide MTBE-free fuel to the basin.
However, that excitement will be short-lived if other companies don’t follow Tosco Corporation’s example.
“Tosco can do it. That would lead me to believe (other companies) can do it,” said Bob Baer, general manager of the South Tahoe Public Utility District. “A lot of the major companies have been very quiet on this. We hope they will follow suit. Maybe the market will help out with that; maybe our customers will go to stations with MTBE-free gas.”
South Shore government agencies are looking into the possibility of a local ban of the additive, but if more companies agree to provide MTBE-free gas those plans likely will be shelved, said Tom Davis, South Lake Tahoe mayor pro tem.
“(Mayor) Judy Brown and I spoke to the Air Resources Board on Friday. They made it real clear Gov. Davis has given them a clear direction to move immediately to create a market to bring MTBE-free gas to the basin,” Davis said. “Bottom line, we want it out by the end of April. If not, we’ll move forward with the (Joint Powers Authority between the city, STPUD and El Dorado County to institute a local ban).”
Al Moss, owner of two South Lake Tahoe Chevron stations, hopes his company follows the example. Last week Moss sent a letter to the California Environmental Protection Agency asking for permission, if MTBE-free gas isn’t available from California, to take it from suppliers in Sparks.
“MTBE-free gasoline is being sold and promoted on the Nevada side of the state line, five minutes from one of my gas stations, and yet the Air Resources Board said last autumn that I cannot sell it because it is not California’s ‘cleaner-burning’ gasoline,” Moss said.
Chevron and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein held a joint press conference earlier this week to explain their “fast-track” plan to reduce and eliminate MTBE from California gasoline. Much of the plan hinges around four bills Feinstein has introduced.
Fred Gorell, communications director for Chevron, said the company is looking at its distribution system to see if there is a way to provide MTBE-free gas to Tahoe. However, the company has no immediate plans to do that, he said.
However, Gorell said that in following the company’s fast-track plan: “We are seeing, in two years, not just an MTBE-free Tahoe but an MTBE-free state.”
MTBE – methyl tertiary butyl ether – is a fuel oxygenate comprising about 11 percent of California gasoline. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen. At very low levels, MTBE-contaminated water is undrinkable, because it smells and tastes like turpentine.
More than one-third of STPUD’s drinking water wells have been shut down because of MTBE contamination. The additive has contaminated more than 10,000 groundwater sites in California.
Gov. Gray Davis issued a decision last week concerning MTBE’s future in the state, providing details of how to phase out the additive’s use in California.
In his decision, the governor came up with a plan to help South Shore’s problem: “The Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission shall work with the petroleum industry to supply MTBE-free California-compliant gasoline year around to the Lake Tahoe region at the earliest possible date.”
South Shore officials were originally upset with the action, feeling it didn’t address the problem. The next day, however, Tosco announced it would provide MTBE-free gas to the basin by April 15. South Shore officials quickly changed their minds and celebrated the news.
“That solved part of the problem, but we have to solve all of the problem,” Davis said. “We’re going to keep a real close watch on it. We will move appropriately if we see they are not moving fast enough … We’re not out to get the gas stations; we’re not out to get the oil companies. We’re just out to get MTBE out of the basin. However we have to do that, we will.”
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