NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fuel Additive is Safe

November 6, 2003

The fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) has been blamed for fouling drinking water supplies, leading some states to ban its use. Not surprisingly, water companies -- and indeed some states and cities --- are suing oil companies and the producers of MTBE, explains Margaret N. Maxey, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas.

Liability is supposed to fall on unduly dangerous products, which MTBE is not. MTBE is used in about a third of the states, including Texas, to meet a federal mandate to reduce air pollution from auto emissions.

The problem isn't MTBE but leaking gas tanks. Ironically, the lawsuits against oil refiners and MTBE producers will mean more money paid to trial lawyers and less for the cleanup of water systems. The right way to deal with the water contamination, says Maxey, is to make use of an existing special federal cleanup fund:

  • The Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund collects about $180 million each year.
  • Funded by one-tenth of a cent tax on every gallon of gasoline sold at the pump since 1986, the trust fund today has $1.9 billion -- and is growing.
  • Several states have tapped into it to repair gas tanks and clean up water systems.

It is one thing to make sure that fuel tanks don't continue to leak. It is something else entirely to decide willy-nilly to slough off clean-fuel additives as if they had no value to public health. Congress needs to look ahead and provide liability protection for MTBE, says Maxey.

Source: Margaret Maxey, "Lawsuits can stifle innovation," Dallas Morning News, November 6, 2003.


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