NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 15, 2005

Preventing gasoline producers from being sued when the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) seeps into water systems through leaking underground gas tanks is a fair outcome. However, the brouhaha over MTBE is not about protecting public health or making the polluter pay -- its all about trial lawyers and money, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Here's why:

  • Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states knew of and debated the potential problems that MTBE posed when it was approved for use; and they knew that MTBE would be used more often than other additives because it was less expensive and more readily available.
  • The lawsuits currently underway and being considered target the wrong parties; MTBE is not defective, it cleans the air as promised and unless a fuel tank or pipeline leaks or has a spill it does not pose a threat to drinking water.
  • However, those most often at fault, individual service station owners, don't have the deep pockets that politicians and trial lawyers crave, nor can they be as easily portrayed as evil blackguards by legislators intent on derailing the energy bill by labeling this provision as a payback to "Big Oil."

Protecting MTBE producers would not prevent lawsuits to force responsible parties to clean up the spills, explains Burnett. Indeed, absent producer liability, 95 percent of the spills are being cleaned up by the responsible parties -- the service station owners and fuel transporters -- who owned the leaking tanks and pipelines.

MTBE is slated to be phased out regardless of whether producers receive liability protection -- and this is a good thing. However, simple fairness dictates that producers get protection from unwarranted lawsuits, says Burnett.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Energy, MTBE and Politics: A Toxic Brew," Washington Times, June 15, 2005.


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