As the danger of MTBE contaminating the ground waters increases, several laws have been
passed dealing with the subject of MTBE or personal watercraft (PWC). On one hand, the
U.S. government is trying to preserve the nations air quality by enforcing the Clean
Air Act, which is the addition of oxygenates to gasoline (such as MTBE and ethanol).
But on the other hand, these additives can cause water pollution, endangering marine life
and our health. A satisfactory compromise is yet to be found. In the following paragraphs,
the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the MTBE Ban in California, and the Jet Ski Ban
are closely examined. In addition, the situation in the United States is compared to
Europe, and we will dare to have a look on possible laws for the future.
Clean Water Act
Passed in 1972 in response to extensive water pollution and growing public concern, the
Clean Water Act is a U.S. law
protecting the rivers, lakes, aquifers and coastal areas of the United States. The basic
goals are to restore and maintain a good water condition by eliminating the discharge of
pollutants and achieving higher water quality levels. In addition, it requires major
industries to meet performance standards to guarantee pollution control. It also charges
states with setting specific water quality requirements.
Basically there are two main sources causing water pollution that we focus on:
leaking storage tanks (LUST) and many chemicals that are contained in gasoline, including
the highly soluble MTBE.
Since this additive is not easily broken down and travels faster and farther than any
other gasoline component, it can have a dangerous effect on ground and surface waters.
Even small amounts of MTBE, which has a strong taste and odor, can make a water supply
distasteful. Although MTBE has mostly been detected in small amounts, a high concentration
may pose a public health threat. Being in charge of most environmental issues in the
United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has
issued an advisory level for taste and odor of 20-40 parts per billion (ppb) and
commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel on MTBE and oxygenates in gasoline with the aim to
substantially reduce the use of MTBE.
Clean Air Act
The Clean Air Act (CAA), passed in 1975, is a wide-range Federal law that regulates air
emissions and authorizes the EPA to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards
(NAAQS) to protect public health and the environment.
The original goal of the Clean Air Act was to achieve the NAAQS requirements in every
state by 1975 as well as to set a maximum, individual pollution standard for each state.
New amendments were added as it turned out that many areas had failed to meet the intended
deadlines. The 1990 amendments aimed to meet either problems that were not addressed or
those that were inadequately addressed, including acid rain, ozone and air toxics. One
consequence of the new amendment was that Congress required areas with the worst ozone
smog problems to use reformulated gasoline
with an increased oxygen content of 2% by weight that is supposed to reduce air pollution.
Adding oxygen to gasoline is achieved by adding additives, such as MTBE. Eighty-seven
percent of the RFG contains MTBE as oxygenate with the renewable biomass fuel ethanol
taking second place. The
mandate of 1990 had a great impact on the gasoline industry. Today 4.5 billion
gallons of MTBE are used in gasoline each year (275,000 barrels per day out of a
total of 8.2 million barrels/day of gasoline), which is an increase of more than 300%
Reformulated Gasoline is currently used in 17 states and the District of
Columbia. Some states have chosen RFG voluntarily to help achieve their clean air
goals, while some states were forced to introduce RFG by congressional mandate. Of the
areas listed below, only Milwaukee and Chicago use primarily ethanol instead of
Areas that are required to use RFG
include Los Angeles, California, San Diego, California, Hartford, Connecticut, New York
City, Greater Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Maryland, Houston, Texas, Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, and Sacramento California.
Areas that have voluntarily chosen to use RFG include the state of Connecticut (the
portion not part of NYC), the state of Delaware (that portion not part of Philadelphia),
the District of Columbia, Kentucky, portions of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area,
Louisville, Kentucky, the DC suburbs and tow other counties in Maryland, the state of
Massachusetts, St. Louis, Missouri, the New Hampshire portion of Greater Boston, the state
of New Jersey (the portion not part of NYC and Philadelphia), New York counties near NYC,
the state of Rhode Island, the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas, and the DC suburbs,
Richmond, and Norfolk-Virginia Beach- Newport News in Virginia.
In conclusion, it can be stated that the use of the critical substance MTBE has cleaned
up the nations air, but it also has wreaked havoc on the groundwater aquifers. On
March 20th, 2000, EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman
published a proposal to eliminate the use of MTBE as a gasoline additive and encourage the
use of renewable biomass fuels such as ethanol. Along with the designed legislation was a
regulatory plan for EPA to ban MTBE through the Toxic Substances Control Act.
These ambitions go along with the Panel's plan to replace the 2% rule with a
renewable fuel annual average for all gasolines at a level maintaining the current level
(1.2 % of gasoline supply) and allow growth over the next decade.
MTBE Ban in California
During the on-going discussion about MTBE and other environmental issues, California is
often referred to. As the number of environmental incidents involving MTBE
increased, the state government saw the necessity to respond and therefore enacted four
bills addressing this fuel additive and other oxygenates in October 1997. This has a great
impact on the selling and operation of PWCs in the state. On December 20th, 1999, the California Air Resources Board approved gasoline
standards eliminating the additive methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether (MTBE), as well as making
California's clean gasoline even cleaner. The new rules, known officially as the Phase 3
gasoline regulation, CaRFG3,
prohibit the formulation of gasoline with MTBE after December 31, 2002. In addition, an
out-of court settlement has been reached by the CARB that will remove all conventional
jet-skis from the market in California by 2006. This would make California the first state
to require that manufacturers equip new personal watercraft with cleaner direct-injection
These new regulations are based on a study by the University of California, Davis which
dealt with human health concerns, environmental risks and benefits of MTBE, and
alternative fuel oxygenates. The UC Davis study concluded that MTBE and other oxygenates
were found to have no significant effect on exhaust emissions from advanced
technology vehicles, compared to gasoline without MTBE content. According to the
study, no important additional air quality benefit could be found and furthermore,
significant costs and risks are associated with water contamination due the use of
MTBE. If the use of MTBE was continued and more and more water resources became polluted,
the consequences of potential water shortages during droughts would be worsened. It also
talked explicitly about the harmful effects on surface waters caused by the use of
two-stroke motor boat engines. Finally, an economic analysis brought to light that
non-oxygenated CaRFG2 achieves air quality benefits at the least cost, followed by
gasoline with ethanol as additive.
Referring to this study, Californias Governor Gray Davis urged President Bush to
direct the EPA to grant Californias request for a waiver
of the federal minimum oxygen requirement through the Clean Air Act. He argues that
without this waiver, California customers would have to pay $450 million more a year for
RFG. A waiver would also allow refiners and marketers to use reduced quantities of
ethanol during periods of time when supplies of CaRFG2 are inadequate to meet
Jet Ski Ban
As the number of accidents, environmental concerns, injuries, and the sales rate of
personal watercraft increase, state governments and the federal government are considering
a ban of Jet Skis. Maine and Vermont have already banned PWCs on lakes smaller than a
designated size of 300 acres and 200 acres respectively, and all National Parks do not
allow this type of PWC anymore. Maine also allows citizens to file private nuisance suits
if harassed by PWC activity.
Some other local communities have already either partially or completely banned PWCs:
- Lake Tahoe, California
- San Juan County, Washington State<
- San Francisco County, California
- Mendocino County, California
- Pacifica, California
- City of Malibu, California
- Monroe County, Florida
- Walton County, Florida
MTBE Elimination Act 2006
U.S. Senator Fitzgerald proposed legislation to ban the hazardous fuel additive MTBE.
Instead, he promotes the use of ethanol as an alternative. The Act would completely phase
out the hazardous fuel additive in the next three years. The bill also requires that the
gasoline containing MTBE should be labeled.
Other senators favor eliminating MTBE too, but with the repealing of the oxygenates
requirement the provision in the Clean Air Act, it mandates the production of reformulated
gasoline. But the problem is MTBE, not the oxygenates. It would be possible to use Ethanol
instead of MTBE. Replacing MTBE nationwide could boost farm income by more than $1 billion
and create 13,000 new jobs in the USA. Summary of all bills passed by
Congress with regard to air and water quality:
MTBE Ban: Europe in brief
There are several differences to be found in comparing the danger of MTBE contamination
of drinking water in the U.S. to the situation in Europe. The MTBE content in
European gasoline average is 2%-3%, as opposed to 12% in California.Because of
higher safety standards, pipelines and gas stations are less likely to leak, and therefore
most of the European governments are not too concerned about potential dangers caused by
MTBE. A ban of MTBE was discussed, but using Finland as example, it was said that
MTBE was not a public health threat. MTBE is not classified as dangerous substance
throughout the EU (European Union) and the existing Substances Regulations, states
the German "Umweltbundesamt"
(Federal Office for Environmental Protection). The conclusion was that a widespread
contamination on the same scale as in the U.S. is unlikely.
In Europe, however, special taxes on gasoline ensure that the price of petrol maintains
at a high level compared to the U.S. in order to force more people to use public
transportation systems. Germany charges an additional 10% to the gasoline price through
the effects of the "Oekosteuer" (Ecological
tax), which means that German customers pay about twice as much for their gas compared
to American citizens. The government also agreed to increase the gasoline price
continuously over the next few years. A radical attempt by the German party, the Greens
that are part of the government coalition, to charge 5DM per liter (approx. $ 8.4 per
gallon) failed, only for the time being.