EPA Panel Recommends Reduction of MTBE as Fuel Additive

Sept. 1, 1999
A panel convened by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the use of oxygenates in gasoline has completed its work and recommended that

A panel convened by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the use of oxygenates in gasoline has completed its work and recommended that the use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) be reduced substantially. In addition, the panel urged Congress to give federal agencies and states authority to regulate and/or eliminate the use of gasoline additives that threaten drinking water supplies, according to the EPA.

At the same time, the panel noted that changes in the use of MTBE will call for capital investment in new construction and infrastructure modification, which will take "sufficient time, certainty, and flexibility to maintain the stability of both the complex US fuel supply system and gasoline prices."

EPA organized the panel because MTBE has been detected in drinking water. The great majority of these detections to date have been well below levels of public health concerns, but consumers have complained about taste and odor that have caused water suppliers to stop using some water sources and incur costs for treatment and remediation.

The major source of groundwater contamination appears to be coming from underground gasoline storage systems. There is also evidence of contamination of surface waters, particularly during summer boating seasons when spills occur from boat motors, according to the panel summary.

Industry representatives are concerned that the panel recommendations, if eventually approved by Congress and implemented, could result in even tougher underground storage tank regulations and that the industry may also be subjected to additional federal restrictions on fuels.

"We will urge members of Congress to consider the significant investments made by our members to comply with the existing MTBE requirement as they make their decision in this issue," said Urvan Sternfels, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association (NPRA). "NPRA will insist that Congress take into account the costly impact on the refining industry of current proposals to reduce sulfur in gasoline and diesel at the same time that the panel's recommendations would be implemented."

The panel agreed that while it is possible to formulate gasoline without oxygenates that can attain air toxics reduction, it is less certain that all fuel blends created without the ingredients could maintain the air quality that is required under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. As a result, the panel recommended that Congress remove the current two percent oxygen requirement to ensure that adequate fuel supplies can be blended in a cost-efficient manner. In addition, it recommended that EPA take action to ensure there is no loss of current air quality benefits.

"I stated when the panel was assembled that my goal was to protect public health and the environment by ensuring that Americans have both cleaner air and cleaner water-and never one at the expense of the other, said Carol Browner, EPA administrator. "And that is what EPA intends to do. The recommendations I received from the panel confirm EPA's belief that we must begin to significantly reduce the use of MTBE in gasoline as quickly as possible without sacrificing the gains we've made in achieving cleaner air.

"EPA is committed to working with Congress to provide a targeted legislative solution that maintains our air quality gains and allows for the reduction of MTBE, while preserving the important role of renewable fuels like ethanol."

The panel expressed concern about MTBE-added fuel leaking from underground storage tanks and recommended accelerated enforcement of tank upgrade requirements now in force. It called for prohibition of fuel delivery into nonupgraded tanks, improvements on ways to detect and minimize leaks, and restrictions on new facilities near drinking water.