Subsidizing polluters

September 09, 2004

BEWARE OF Congress always, but particularly at this time of year. Lawmakers are in a hurry to get done whatever they need to get done and go home. Sometimes really bad laws get made.

One such measure awaiting a final push is the wildly misguided energy bill -- a $19 billion package of subsidies for the energy industry to which supporters want to add one last insult: a taxpayer bailout for manufacturers of the cancer-causing fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

In other words, they want to shift legal liability for damage caused by MTBE contamination away from oil companies that make a profit from selling the stuff and foist it instead on everyone who pays the gasoline tax because they think that proposition has a better chance of winning enactment.

If President Bush truly stands for a "culture of responsibility" -- as he frequently proclaims on the stump -- he should never sign such legislation. It endorses a culture of irresponsibility.

Fallston residents are learning firsthand about the dangers of MTBE, which has leaked into the water supply there as it has in other parts of the country. It's not yet clear how much damage, if any, has been done in Maryland. But it makes no sense for the federal government to let the manufacturers off the hook.

MTBE should be banned or at least phased out in Maryland as it has been in many other states. That's a job the General Assembly should undertake when it meets in regular session next year. Tighter regulations on storage tanks, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed this summer, represent an inadequate halfway measure.

Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican trying to resolve the MTBE liability dispute, has suggested that damage claims -- estimated at $29 billion -- be paid from a $2.6 billion trust fund financed through a 0.1 cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuels.

This isn't a case, though, where taxpayers must help with a cleanup because those responsible can't be found or identified. MTBE makers are still in business, marketing this dangerous chemical. They shouldn't be rewarded for it.

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