Election Section

Clean ethanol on tap when MTBE phaseout ends

The Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2000

SACRAMENTO — California’s air pollution fighters, looking ahead to the day when the water-tainting fuel additive MTBE is just a memory, see ethanol as a likely substitute – but only if it’s clean. 

The Air Resources Board approved regulations Thursday to ensure that ethanol – a sort of 200-proof moonshine used to boost octane and cut air emissions – is as clean burning as possible if California begins using it in 2003. 

Ethanol is an oxygenate, a chemical that adds oxygen to fuel to make it burn more cleanly. The federal government has required oxygenates in gasoline sold in smoggy areas, including most of California’s major urban areas, to protect air quality. 

Ethanol, made from corn starch, is popular in the East and Midwest. 

But in California, the oxygenate of choice is MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, a suspected carcinogen with unknown health effects in humans. MTBE accounts for about 11 percent of California’s gasoline, and it has contaminated thousands of wells and groundwater supplies across the state. 

Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature ordered MTBE banned by the end of 2002. 

But MTBE remains in widespread use, as refiners have not completed the transition to MTBE-free gasoline. 

“There is still a lot of sampling going on. The levels of MTBE that have been found in the state persist, and we still don’t have an effective treatment technology,” said Krista Clark, a regulatory affairs expert with the Association of California Water Agencies. The group’s 400-plus members supply about 95 percent of California’s water. 

Drinking water tests by the state Department of Health Services are expected to conclude by the end of 2001. 

If the federal oxygenate requirement continues – California has asked for a waiver, but there’s been no decision – the Golden State is expected to turn to ethanol. 

“We’re calling on the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to grant that waiver,” Clark added. “We are convinced we’re going to get something.” 

The ARB’s goal is to have its ethanol rules in place by the time MTBE is phased out, regardless of whether a waiver ultimately is granted.