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Bush is playing politics at the expense of water


The Bush administration quietly shelved a proposed regulation, actually pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency on the day the Clinton administration left office, to ban the gasoline additive popularly known as MTBE, The Associated Press reported.

There may be corporate influence behind the administration’s reluctance to support a national ban on an additive that many states already have banned on their own.

Some attribute President Bush’s decision to the fact that MTBE manufacturers are significant contributors to Republicans, although, like many corporate donors, they also gave about half as much money to Democrats.

Despite the pressure, President Bush should not walk away from the MTBE issue, or from overall oxygenate mandate concerns.

MTBE became a common gasoline additive after the EPA, in the early 1990s, mandated that oxygenates, which cause fuel to be burned more thoroughly and produce fewer air pollutants, be added to gasoline. The idea was to improve air quality.

Unfortunately, it turned out that, as the Clinton-era EPA document, which the AP obtained, put it, “Unlike other components of gasoline, MTBE dissolves and spreads readily in the ground water ... resists biodegradation and is more costly and difficult to remove.” When it gets into water supplies, “low levels of MTBE can render drinking water supplies unpotable due to its offensive taste and odor.”

While there have been complaints of human illness arising from MTBE, the evidence that MTBE is a health hazard is controversial.

Here’s the gist, however. If not for a government mandate, it is highly unlikely that MTBE would ever have been added to gasoline in the United States. Thus the government — and we’ll assume the motivation was good — is more responsible than the industry for the pollution of water supplies by MTBE.

The city of Santa Monica, Calif., has sued MTBE manufacturers and stands to collect millions of dollars from the industry for the contamination of the city’s water supply. Has anyone thought about suing the EPA? If not, why not?

Meantime, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has requested a waiver from the oxygenate mandate, but the issue is intensely political, as President Bush’s actions attest. The alternative to MTBE is ethanol, made from corn.

President Bush should stop playing politics with the oxygenate mandate and support eliminating it altogether.

That would be deregulation that helps the environment, which he could spin as a twofer.

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