Congress Debates Fuel Additive MTBE in Energy Bill
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Members of the House and Senate are meeting to see if they can iron out differences between their respective energy bills. A provision that helped kill previous energy bills is on the chopping block. It would give oil refineries protection from liability for water contaminated by a fuel additive called MTBE. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:
Fuel companies started using MTBE to meet a requirement of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Scott Segal is a fuel industry lobbyist.
Mr. SCOTT SEGAL (Fuel Industry Lobbyist): MTBE technically stands for methyl tertiary butyl ether. It was added to gasoline in the nine smoggiest cities in the United States. It made gasoline burn cleaner. Frankly, it performed as an air pollution control device marvelously.
SHOGREN: But it seeped into groundwater from leaking storage tanks and runoff and polluted at least a couple thousand drinking water systems from California to New Hampshire. MTBE stinks and may cause cancer. Diane VanDe Hei is the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.
Ms. DIANE VANDE HEI (Executive Director, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies): In essence, if a well is contaminated with MTBE, you can't use it. It renders water supplies useless.
SHOGREN: She says it will cost these communities tens of billions of dollars to install the treatment systems that can fix the problem. About 150 water agencies are suing MTBE producers and refineries over the cleanup. Erik Olson is a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mr. ERIK OLSON (Lawyer, Natural Resources Defense Council): The crux of the debate is who should pay. Should it be the oil industry that made billions and billions of dollars off of this and covered up the fact that it caused widespread contamination, or should it be consumers that are getting polluted drinking water? We think that we should just go back to what we learned in kindergarten, which was that when somebody makes a mess, they're responsible for cleaning it up.
SHOGREN: The industry argues it's not responsible. Lobbyist Scott Segal.
Mr. SEGAL: The recipe for reformulated gasoline was essentially dictated by the federal government, and as a result, it makes little sense to say, `Let's sue for the manufacture of this product that the government required.'
Mr. OLSON: It's entirely false to say that the oil industry was forced to use MTBE.
SHOGREN: Again, NRDC's Erik Olson.
Mr. OLSON: What Congress said was that the industry had to add oxygenates or something that adds oxygen to the gasoline, and left it up to the free market to decide what oxygenates would be added.
SHOGREN: Even so, the House included liability protection for the industry in its version of the energy bill, but the Senate refused to include that provision. Representative Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy Bill Conference Committee, tried to broker a compromise. It would have made industry pay for a cleanup fund in exchange for liability protection. The water agencies didn't like that idea, and neither did the industry. Segal says it would have cost the industry more than $6 billion.
Mr. SEGAL: That was well in excess of anticipated litigation exposure and just frankly was a deal too rich for industry to embrace.
SHOGREN: The refineries and producers are still lobbying behind the scenes to get the so-called safe harbor provision reinserted in the bill. Barring that, they hope Congress will send the cases to federal courts, where they expect better outcomes. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
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