Ethanol and MTBE - Should EPA Be Abolished?

At long last EPA has lifted its requirement that corn-based ethanol or MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) be added to gasoline, allegedly to fight pollution, in compliance with the Clean Air Act of 1990. But, as I pointed out in my book MAKERS AND TAKERS, as far back as 1997 EPA was receiving reports of adverse health consequences from MTBE, and some states were already banning its use. EPA officials admitted they were surprised to find MTBE in blood samples from people even in Alaska. So why did it take almost another nine years for EPA to take action?

By 1999 sixteen states had banned MTBE. Still, EPA would do nothing for another seven years. By 2001, MTBE was found to have polluted the ground water in 49 states, including 20 percent of the nation’s urban water wells. California alone had identified 10,000 sites of polluted ground water, with some sites having 1,000 times the EPA limit for this chemical. Santa Monica found MTBE in its municipal water supply. You could no longer drink the water in beautiful Santa Monica. By 2002 the city had imported water continuously for four years at a cost of $3 million per year. New York identified 1,500 MTBE-polluted sites, and 3 million people were exposed on Long Island alone, which was found to have more than 100 polluted municipal wells, and those people had no alternative source of water.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the whole story is that EPA knew about the danger of MTBE for ten years before the 1990 Clean Air Act but made no attempt to alert Congress or notify the public. In 2001 the popular CBS program “60 Minutes” displayed official documents from EPA itself showing the EPA was aware of the problem as far back as 1980. Yet EPA quietly let legislation pass in 1990 that would increase the use of MTBE—and then for another 15 years did nothing about the problem it had precipitated. It claimed the additive was necessary to improve air quality from automobile exhausts and was required by the Clean Air Act of 1990, which it wanted passed.

That law required an “oxygenate” to be added to gasoline, and the only two available were ethanol and MTBE. Ethanol breaks downs in water, which is found in small amounts in pipelines and large storage facilities. Ethanol itself entrains (attracts) water, and the ethanol-water mixture alters the blend of the fuel as the ethanol breaks down. So gasoline with ethanol must be transported by truck, which means it is impractical to use ethanol instead of MTBE outside the corn-growing states of the Midwest, despite the clamor of the ethanol industry for a larger share of market.

EPA maintained it had to continue to allow MTBE to be used in order to protect the nation’s air quality and comply with the 1990 law. But the National Academy of Sciences said the fuel “oxygenates” had little impact on air quality. (Further, it said that ethanol was of even less benefit that MTBE. It said “using ethanol as a blending agent in gasoline would not achieve significant air-quality benefits, and in fact would likely be detrimental.”) So, for a dubious air quality benefit, the government produced a catastrophic pollution of the nation’s ground water. This government-caused water pollution is so great it far outweighs all the benefits EPA has ever achieved. The role of EPA in this unnecessary disaster—which polluted ground water in 49 states and placed 100 million people at risk—should be reason enough to abolish EPA and end the myth that government regulations on balance improve our environment. MTBE has been identified as cancer-causing in rat studies that are comparable to the kind of rat studies that EPA has used to attack all sorts of food additives and agricultural chemicals, but EPA raised no alarm about this regarding MTBE. When EPA declares industry to be the culprit in allegedly cancer-causing chemicals, it demands immediate correct action—but when EPA itself is the guilty party, it takes many years before something is done.

Furthermore, it has long been known that the “oxygenates” have no benefit at all in modern cars. For many years now cars have been built with computer systems that regulate the fuel-air mixture and duplicate what the ethanol and MTBE are supposed to do. So the only possible benefit has been from much older cars, which have been steadily disappearing from our roads simply because of age.

EPA in 2006 has now said it can eliminate the 1990 oxygenate mandate simply by announcing new rules on the grounds that refineries now have other ways to blend cleaner-burning fuel. Yet as far back as 1999, several oil refineries said they could make cleaner-burning gasoline without using MTBE or any other oxygenate. Chevron Corp. and Tosco Corp., for example, said they would substitute alkylate, a byproduct of the gasoline refining process.

The MTBE issue is not the only case of inappropriate action by EPA. The nonpartisan General Accounting Office and the Congressional Research Service have been severely critical of EPA’s policies and behavior regarding secondhand smoke and a variety of other issues. EPA has been guilty of violating its own risk assessment guidelines. It has been found guilty of violating six federal statutes for using harassment and intimidation to try to compel employee support for its policy on secondhand smoke. It has fraudulently misrepresented the findings of other scientists in order to make it appear they supported conclusions EPA favored. A dozen career employees of EPA wrote a letter to the Washington Times “risking our careers rather than choosing to remain silent” about “egregious misconduct” at EPA. Internal documents available under the Freedom of Information Act show that EPA exaggerated claims and promulgated unwarranted policies. EPA has gone against the advice of it own Science Advisory Board (see, for example, its history of action on particulates.) EPA fraudulently manufactured fake “scientific” studies in order to support its views on sulfur dioxide (see my book MAKERS AND TAKERS for fuller explanation of this.) EPA has funneled taxpayer money to lobby groups that support political action on policies—even unscientific ones—that EPA wants to promote (for example, a million dollars a year to the American Cancer Society). EPA should be a scientific agency, not one that funds political activism. For all these reasons and many other examples of scientific malpractice, deception, and incompetence, EPA should be abolished.

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