Restarting the Energy Bill

By Kitman, Jamie Lincoln | The Nation, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Restarting the Energy Bill


Kitman, Jamie Lincoln, The Nation


The stalling of the Republican-backed energy bill by a Democrat-led Senate filibuster was only a temporary reprieve. Now Senate majority leader Bill Frist vows to bring the bill up for "top priority" reconsideration when Congress reconvenes in January. For maximum speed he'd like the Senate to adopt the conference report intact and make any changes in a separate bill. The bill's sponsor, Pete Domenici, is trying to round up enough votes during the recess to overcome the filibuster, but the bill is so tightly knit that pulling one thread could unravel the whole bundle. Democrats say they'll use the opening to amend the bill so it addresses their concerns.

Both sides agree that what tipped the balance against this energy company pinata was the provision giving liability protection to Texas oil companies--pals of House majority leader Tom DeLay--responsible for contaminating the water supply with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. DeLay has blustered that he won't go along with any tampering with the amnesty. If he gets his way, the MTBE cleanup could cost more than $140 billion--about the same as the savings and loan bailout.

Ignoring the warnings of scientists in and out of industry, oil companies started adding MTBE to gasoline in the 1980s. Foul-tasting and a suspected carcinogen, MTBE started leaking from underground storage tanks and into the nation's drinking water the day they started adding it to gasoline. Today, the EPA says it is finally satisfied with proof that MTBE causes cancer in animals; the industry, predictably, disagrees. But none dare argue that MTBE tastes other than horrible, or that it has not contaminated at least 1,500 public water supplies in all fifty American states.

The energy bill would outlaw MTBE while relieving the oil industry of any potential liability in connection with its past use of the chemical or its cleanup. Call it high-test tort reform, more polluter-friendly than regular tort reform, which merely seeks to cap liability for punitive damages. This is a full-service, commit-a-crime-and-don't-do-the-time, get-out-jail-free card to an industry that has behaved badly for a century.

The most painful irony is that MTBE wasn't necessary in the first place. The industry claims the government forced it to use the stuff when, in 1990, it mandated the addition of so-called oxygenates to gasoline to improve air quality. The problem with this assertion is that the government never specified MTBE as the oxygenate. In fact, a completely viable alternative, ethanol, was used by many refiners to meet the oxygenation requirement. A proven octane booster that contains 35 percent oxygen, ethanol is water-soluble, biodegradable, nontoxic, easily made and readily available. …

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