Efforts to force oil giants to discontinue using methyl
tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in their gasoline finally have paid off. A
surprising announcement came from BP, California’s largest gasoline
supplier and a top user of ethanol for gasoline.* The plan? To switch by the
fourth quarter of 2002 from using MTBE to ethanol, an oxygenate alternative to
MTBE. The official deadline for the ban, however, is not set until Jan. 1,
2004, which is a one-year delay by California Governor Gray Davis despite
California refiners stating that they would follow through with the original
deadline of Dec.31, 2002. Since Davis signed the ban three years ago, the
ethanol industry has seen the production of an additional one billion gallons
to meet demand.
In the 1970s, MTBE was used in the formulation of gasoline
to replace lead and comply with the Clean Air Act. It is water-soluble,
degrades slowly, spreads quickly and persists indefinitely in groundwater. For
example, a car accident could contaminate an entire underground aquifer.
Currently, there is no national maximum contaminant level (MCL) for this
EPA-listed possible carcinogen. However, some states set their own such as
California’s primary MCL of 0.013 mg/L.
Most of the MTBE hype was caused in California when cities
such as Santa Monica and South Lake Tahoe found high levels of MTBE in their
drinking water. Due to the debate regarding clean-up costs for such
contamination, California has been the first state to take drastic action in
its prevention. In California alone, there are a reported 1,189 underground
tank sites leaking MTBE within 1,000 feet of public supply wells or aquifers as
well as 1,729 leaking tank sites further away. “I commend BP for making
this courageous decision,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable
Fuels Association. “There is simply no reason for any California oil
company to risk further drinking water supplies by continuing to use
In April, a landmark Superior Court case found that gasoline
containing MTBE is a “defective product” and three major oil
companies—Shell Oil Co., Lyondell Chemical Co. and Tosco Corp.—were
found guilty of acting with malice when they placed the defective product on
the market. (The oil industry holds that it followed laws that deemed MTBE an
appropriate product.) Billions of dollars in punitive damages are predicted
from similar suits filed by cities, well owners and consumers.
With MTBE in the limelight for many consumers, it is up to
our industry to teach them to test their water and use those results to select
the best technology for removal such as air stripping or granular activated
carbon, which are recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I use California as an example of MTBE efforts. However,
there are other states that also are addressing this problem. Visit www.epa.gov 
and www.usgs.gov  websites to learn about the various areas that are facing this
contamination. Other websites for information include www.ethanolrfa.org ,
www.mtbecontamination.com  and srtp.ucdavis.edu/mtbe/page_4.htm. Perhaps in the
future we will see further research, an MCL, more treatment technologies and
bans on MTBE. Until then, dealers should be ready and able to help customers
with their concerns.