Ban Hysteria, Not MTBE

By Steven J. Milloy*

What happens when you combine cutthroat business competition, anti-chemical activism, politics and a regulatory establishment of questionable competence and credibility?

For gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), the answer is more air pollution. And that fate awaits California, Texas, the Northeast and other states if plans to eliminate MTBE progress.

MTBE has been added to gasoline since the 1970s. Use greatly increased when the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments required gasoline reformulated with “oxygenates” to be used in certain major metropolitan areas with poor air quality. Oxygenates reduce motor vehicle tailpipe emissions of smog-forming compounds.

Though not required by law, MTBE is the most popular oxygenate. Compared to rival ethanol, MTBE is more easily added to gasoline during refining, resulting in less expensive gasoline for consumers. MTBE also reduces emissions slightly more than its competitors.

But what’s good for consumers and cleaner air is not necessarily good for the ethanol industry, the anti-chemical agenda, politicians and government regulators.

News reports indicate the ethanol industry, led by agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., has been covertly supporting chemical sensitivity activists, led by the anti-MTBE group OxyBusters, to cause alarm by denigrating MTBE. They’ve recruited a disgruntled former oil industry employee who publishes his own “science” journal to assist the crusade.

Stirring the pot are reports MTBE has been detected in some ground water supplies. Experts say the sources of the MTBE are generally gasoline spills and leaky underground gasoline storage tanks. Although detection of gasoline components in ground water is not new, special efforts are being made to spotlight MTBE -- as if, without MTBE, gasoline in ground water is no worry.

To date, this confluence of cutthroat competition and anti-chemical activism has been very successful in demonizing MTBE.

Communities are being scared by headlines such as “MTBE Leaks a Ticking Time Bomb” and “Gasoline Additive Suspected of Poisoning Wells.” The scare has worked so well that some states are considering banning MTBE.

The irony is the public health establishment including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an expert panel of the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the state of California’s Proposition 65 committee and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering have squarely rejected the proposition that MTBE threatens public health.

One would think rejection by such highly regarded authorities would end MTBE mania. Unfortunately, that’s not how the health scare game works. Anti-chemical activists and the media tout pronouncements by authorities when chemicals are condemned but ignore them otherwise. Credibility and

newsworthiness, it appears, depends on the conclusion.

One agency wise to the health scare game is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So far the EPA has played the MTBE controversy masterfully pretty much escaping all responsibility. The agency’s strategy is straight from the Dick Morris play book stick a wet finger up to see which way the political wind is blowing and then duck for cover.

For years the EPA has touted oxygenates, including MTBE, as a way to cleaner air. The EPA has also spent years investigating complaints that MTBE causes headaches and nausea, and claims that MTBE may cause cancer. The EPA has never found MTBE to threaten public health, yet, it fuels the controversy by not taking a firm stand. Instead, the agency plays the appeasement game by agreeing to conduct review after review.

Sharing blame with the EPA are state environmental agencies who have dropped the ball on the leaking underground gasoline storage tank (LUST) issue.

States initially underestimated the scope of the decades-old LUST problem. They failed to prioritize cleanup activities. They wound up spending too much of their limited resources on too few cleanups. LUST programs have been in such disarray that state regulators have been forced to let public relations instead of sound science and risk assessment guide cleanups.

If MTBE is in ground water, so must be much more worrisome constituents of gasoline, including carcinogens benzene and toluene. But by shifting attention from LUSTs to MTBE, the symptom rather than the disease becomes the focus of attention.

So MTBE has become the whipping boy for politicians. “Ban MTBE!” they cry. Now is the time for clearer heads to take control. The MTBE controversy is complex, but the facts are simple.

MTBE reduces air pollution. It does not threaten public health. The only thing that needs to be banned is hysteria.

* Steven J. Milloy is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

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