California Refineries adding more MTBE to gas produced in state : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Refineries adding more MTBE to gas produced in state By Glen Martin San Francisco Chronicle

Use of the controversial gasoline additive MTBE increased in California from the first to the second quarter of the year, despite an order by Gov. Gray Davis to ban it by 2002.

A report from the California Energy Commission found that the amount of MTBE blended into gasoline by Northern California refineries increased by 14 percent - or 15 million gallons - in the April to June period. Total MTBE use increased by 1.5 percent throughout the state to about 371 million gallons.

MTBE is an "oxygenate" - a chemical that can make gasoline burn cleaner, resulting in fewer noxious emissions. But it has also been identified as a water pollutant, and has been widely blamed for contaminating reservoirs and groundwater supplies throughout California.

The chemical a suspected carcinogen - is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process.

Davis issued an executive order in March 1999 prohibiting use of the chemical in gasoline by Dec. 31, 2002.

The use of oxygenates is required by federal law for those areas that don't meet federal air quality standards. Much of Southern California does not meet the standards, but the only area that is not in compliance in Northern California is Sacramento and its suburbs.

Environmentalists expressed distress at the new figures.

Elisa Lynch of Bluewater Network, a San Francisco environmental group working to ban MTBE, said oil refineries use MTBE as a "hamburger helper" to extend fuel supplies, particularly when inventories are tight, as has been the case recently.

"The fact that the oil industry has deliberately chosen to flood the market with MTBE shows utter contempt for ... the health of Californians," Lynch said. "It's clear that Gov. Davis' policy to eliminate MTBE has been totally ineffective. It's time for him to lower the boom."

Lynch said Bay Area residents are being unnecessarily exposed to the hazards of MTBE because the region is in compliance with federal air quality standards. "The amount of MTBE required for Sacramento is only 20 percent of what is being made by north state refineries," she said.

Francesca Vietor, San Francisco's Department of the Environment executive director, said there should be an immediate ban on MTBE.

"The 2002 deadline is too far away," she said. "We need to address this problem now, especially because there has been an increase in its use."

Refinery executives say they have every intention of meeting Davis' deadline, but that they must also respond to market realities.

"I'm not surprised there is more use of MTBE in spring than winter," said Duane Bordvick, senior vice president of safety, health and environment for Tosco Corp., which has two refineries in the Bay Area.

"We can make more gasoline without MTBE in the winter because the specifications can be different," said Bordvick.

When used as an oxygenate, MTBE constitutes about 11 percent of a gallon of gas. That means fuel availability could be affected if the chemical was suddenly banned, Bordvick said.

"The supply and demand impact would be severe," he said. "We're doing as much as we can without upsetting the market. We will absolutely meet the governor's deadline, and we're substituting ethanol (a less polluting oxygenate) for MTBE at Lake Tahoe and three Bay Area counties. But until we make changes at the refineries, we can't make all of our gas MTBE-free throughout the entire year."

Edward Fong, communications director for the California Department of Environmental Protection, said immediate bans on refinery products are usually impractical.

"You can't throw a switch and every refinery suddenly stops producing one type of gas and goes to another," Fong said. "It doesn't work that way."

Fong said the state has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver on requiring oxygenates in California gasoline, but that the federal agency has not yet responded.

"(California) has approved a formula for oxygenate-free gasoline that would meet federal clean air standards," Fong said. "The refineries probably want to see how the landscape will turn out - whether the waiver is granted and they can go to the new formula, or whether they need a new oxygenate."

Environmentalists want to see ethanol - a type of alcohol derived from grain and plant fiber rather than refined from petroleum -substituted for MTBE. And ethanol producers say they're ready for such a change.

"We're now making about 1.7 billion gallons of ethanol a year, and we could double that in 18 months," said Monte Shaw, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group based in Washington, D.C.

"California only needs about 550 million gallons of oxygenates a year, so we could supply that immediately," Shaw said. "We have about 250 million gallons of ethanol in storage right now, and we've already established an ethanol distribution system in Crockett."

Shaw said the United States could ultimately produce 27 billion gallons or more of ethanol a year.

"It would be a wonderful alternative fuel system," he said. "California could produce 285 million gallons a year from rice straw alone. That's turning waste into clean fuel."

Vietor said ethanol production could help San Francisco and other municipalities solve their solid waste problems.

"We're struggling in this city to meet the state-mandated 50 percent figure for solid waste diversion (from landfills)," she said. "We're kind of stuck at around 43 percent. Turning green waste and other compostable materials into ethanol could help us with that remaining 7 percent."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 06, 2000

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