Fuel additives too much trouble

Brian Stensaas

Once again in Washington, politics is overruling science and common sense to keep a costly and dangerous policy alive. The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments attempted to improve air quality by mandating the addition of oxygenates – additives designed to make cleaner-burning gasoline – to nearly one-third of all gasoline sold nationwide. The two widely accepted oxygenates, MTBE and ethanol, carry significant costs. Yet despite the evidence against the additives, the Midwest’s powerful ethanol lobby, which gave out more than $835,000 in the last election, keeps the president and key members of Congress on board in support of fuel additives.

MTBE is used for about 85 percent of oxygenated gasoline and raises the cost 10 cents to 15 cents per gallon. Leaking underground storage tanks allow MTBE-mixed gasoline to contaminate water supplies from which half the nation drinks, while boat-motor exhaust releases the compound into above-ground water. MTBE levels in California drinking water are as much as 18 parts per billion above the EPA’s safe level. Additionally, burning MTBE fuel releases formaldehyde and t-butanol. The 1990 clean air amendments sought to cut formaldehyde pollution by 15 percent, but since then, emissions have actually increased by about the same amount. A dozen states have bannned MTBE, and an EPA blue-ribbon panel in September 1999 recommended reducing MTBE use.

Many states are therefore looking to ethanol, but the Congressional Research Service and the Energy Department have found ethanol increases gasoline’s cost by 25 cents to 34 cents per gallon, despite a 54-cent-per-gallon tax credit. Research by Cornell’s David Pimentel shows a unit of ethanol has about half the energy of the fossil fuels burned to produce it, driving up its cost. Additionally, replacing MTBE with ethanol would increase U.S. corn demand by up to 15 percent, raising corn prices, according to an August report from the research and ratings firm Fitch IBCA, Duff & Phelps. The report also said a shift to ethanol would probably lead to phasing out ethanol subsidies and that increased ethanol imports would offset any benefits to domestic ethanol producers (see Daily editorial, Aug. 17).

The policy that emerges ought to be the one the EPA’s blue-ribbon scientists supported: Repeal the fuel additives mandate entirely. From 1970-90, the EPA encouraged unleaded gasoline but otherwise left vehicle fuels virtually unregulated. The number of vehicles and miles driven increased but many pollutants, including many smog contributors, declined nonetheless. Additionally, any car built since 1981 is equipped with computers that adjust the vehicle’s air/fuel ratio automatically – meaning cars simply compensate for oxygen additives by increasing the fuel mixture.

Minnesota is caught at the heart of the ethanol empire, and the citizens of this state have a special responsibility to encourage their members of Congress to end the costly, environmentally destructive reign of the alcohol-additive mandate.