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MTBE Ruling Under Fire

One week after the Bush administration said California must continue using gasoline additives to reduce air pollution, a top federal environmental official suggested it may be time for Congress to eliminate the mandate everywhere.

Linda Fisher, the Environmental Protection Agency's deputy administrator, made the statement during a hearing on whether gas prices would increase because of last week's decision, according to Bloomberg News. The EPA denied California's request to opt out of a federal requirement that gas sold in the smoggiest cities contain oxygen to make it burn cleaner.

The state is phasing out MTBE, the most widely used oxygenate, because it has been found to pollute groundwater. California argued it could meet federal clean-air goals without being forced to use the only oxygenate alternative, ethanol, typically made from corn and not as clean-burning as MTBE.

State officials fear there will not be enough ethanol to supply their enormous market, meaning higher gas prices for motorists. The EPA concluded there was enough uncertainty about whether emissions would increase that the law gave it no choice but to deny California's request.

But in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Fisher said the oxygenate requirement may be outdated. She stressed the clean-air gains of the federal reformulated gas program, but said mandating oxygen content may no longer be the best way to ensure emission reductions, a diverse fuel supply and the other aims of the program. Only Congress can change that requirement, the report said.

Eleven states have banned MTBE and at least a dozen more are considering it. Keeping the oxygenate requirement then would likely be a massive boost for the farm state-based ethanol industry. The industry insists it can meet any supply and transportation challenges, and that adding ethanol to gas provides environmental benefits.
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