EPA Reversal on MTBEs Demonstrates Need for Sound Science

On March 20, 2000 the Clinton-Gore administration moved to phase out the use of MTBE — a fuel additive that helps engines run cleaner and more efficiently — based on evidence that the compound has contaminated groundwater in areas of the country where the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated its use.

The decision flies in the face of the EPA’s earlier mandate requiring the use of oxygenated fuels. MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) is the oxygenate most widely used to comply with the EPA’s mandate. The EPA’s reversal clearly demonstrates the environmental dangers that come as a result of substituting politics for sound science.

Much like controversial clean air regulations that were overturned by the courts in 1999, the EPA neglected to get the science right first. Seven years ago, when the agency first ordered the production of oxygenated fuels, warnings about potential health problems with MTBEs came from many quarters. Concerns increased with time, with several states taking a critical stance against the use of MTBE due to concerns about groundwater contamination. And while the oxygenate program may have improved air quality, there are still questions as to how effective oxygenates have been in reducing smog.

Failing to learn from previous errors, the Clinton-Gore administration has announced its intention to require the replacement of MTBEs with a new mandate for renewable fuel, which means a greater role for ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive. Rather than allow the flexibility of the market to determine how to meet emission requirements, the EPA is once again picking winners and losers — this time in an election year.

The MTBE phase out by the EPA is illustrative of problems of command-and-control, top-down federal environmental regulation. By forcing MTBE on the country as a whole, the EPA raised the cost of gasoline to consumers — by as much as 10 cents a gallon — and may have caused serious environmental harm.