Rising gasoline prices across the United States have drawn attention
to our nation's dependence on foreign oil. But cost and international politics are not the only reasons to be concerned about vehicle fuels. The fossil fuels
we burn are limited, non-renewable resources and will eventually run out. Furthermore, emissions from their use pollute the air and contribute to the greenhouse effect, accelerating global climate change. The 1990 Clean Air Act tried to address the latter
concern by requiring that methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) be added to
gasoline in areas with heavy air pollution, in order to reduce harmful emissions, but this procedure may be discontinued soon due to MTBE's infiltration of drinking water supplies.
This month's Hot Topic explores the issue. A recent Congressional
Research Service (CRS) Report, MTBE in Gasoline:
Clean Air and Water Issues (February 25, 2000), explains how
MTBE is used to meet the Clean Air Act requirement that gasoline sold in
the nation's worst ozone nonattainment areas contain at least 2% oxygen.
After the chemical, a potential human carcinogen, was found to be contaminating ground and
water systems, numerous bills were proposed to limit its use. These
bills are at the forefront of the clean air legislative agenda, as described in the CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Clean Air Act Issues in the 106th Congress (February 8, 2000).
The proposals to limit MTBE may have serious implications for the
oxygenating substances industry. Ethanol, which is produced from
biomass--mainly corn--and mixed with gasoline to create a cleaner-burning
version called gasohol, is one such substance. If the Clean Air Act
requirement is revised so that MTBE and other oxygenating substances no
longer have to be added to gasoline, sales of ethanol, which account for
6% of the U.S. corn crop, will drop dramatically. The CRS Issue Brief, Fuel Ethanol: Background and Public
Policy (March 1, 2000) and the CRS Report, Alcohol Fuels Tax Incentives (June 23, 1999)
provide more detail.
Written by Heather E. Lindsay.