Thursday, April 21, 2005

Would you like MTBE with your water?

Unless you follow gasoline formulations closely, you probably haven't heard of methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE. First used as an octane enhancer when lead was banned from gasoline, it was later used in large amounts to make gasoline burn cleaner. Cleaner burning gasoline was mandated in cities with air pollution problems, and MTBE helped.

Since the law of unintended consequences is active always and everywhere, leaking underground gasoline storage tanks at service stations all over America leaked MTBE as well. Gasoline leaking into the soil is bad enough, but gasoline is volatile and tends not to get very far from the leaking tank. MTBE, on the other hand, slides through soil and then into the water table with ease. It has polluted water throughout America, municipal and private wells alike, making the water supplies unpalatable and possibly carcinogenic.

Municipalities are suing the manufacturers of MTBE--oil giants and refiners--to force them to pay for the costly cleanup. So, in comes the cavalry, that is, the Republican Congress which this week passed an exemption from lawsuits for the MTBE makers. Tom Delay, the most ardent supporter of the measure, has not explained exactly who is going to pay for the cleanup of America's water supplies. I doubt he ever will.

The lawsuit exemption previously kept the White House's energy bill tied up in the Senate, but it's not clear that opponents have enough votes to stop it this time.

Now that Congress is open to narrowly crafted bills for individuals (think Terri Shiavo) and for big oil companies who pollute your drinking water (think ExxonMobil, et al.), perhaps they can exempt everybody from every responsibility. But, I exaggerate. They only do it for political gain or for those who can afford to pay.

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