No reprieve for MTBE

May 03, 2006

In his quest to convince Americans he was doing all he could to ease their pain at the gas pump, President Bush announced last week he would grant delays in the transition to safer fuel-cleaning additives.

For Maryland, at least, he was too late.

The changeover to ethanol from MTBE as an additive to make gasoline burn cleaner is essentially complete. Except for a straggler here or there, supplies should be available at Baltimore-area service stations that sell specially blended summertime fuel, according to F. Peter Horrigan, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association.

That's good news. The state won't have to live one extra day with water-polluting MTBE, which has been a threat to the environment almost since its arrival here more than a decade ago.

Ethanol, the plant-based fuel most commonly derived from corn, brings its own set of problems - including possibly higher prices at a time when motorists are in no mood for them. But as far as experts know, ethanol is far safer for the environment than its predecessor and it helps put the United States on a path toward the independence of a renewable energy source and less reliance on oil.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, wasn't banned in Maryland as it has been in some states. But after years of wrangling, Congress refused to shield suppliers from lawsuits over MTBE. So refiners and service stations switched over to ethanol to produce the cleaner-burning gasoline blends required by law in Baltimore and other cities during hot summer months when smog is most dangerous.

MTBE had long been favored over ethanol for such blends because it's cheaper. But MTBE use has been a nightmare for communities such as Fallston, where the potentially toxic chemical leached into wellwater. Maryland's Department of the Environment is suing ExxonMobil Corp. and a local service station operator for a gasoline leak that contaminated groundwater in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County.

MTBE that's in the groundwater won't go away with the changeover to a new fuel, and corn-based ethanol has far more political support than scientific justification for being considered a panacea to fuel shortages.

But the switch away from MTBE was long overdue. Mr. Bush wouldn't have done the state any favors by prolonging the danger.

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