by Stephanie Mercier
The Environmental Protection Agency is improperly interpreting the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 in seeking to reduce the amount of ethanol consumption required under the Renewable Fuel Standard. In fact, the current situation does not reflect an inadequate supply generated by market forces, which is the situation that can legally trigger a waiver, but is rather is the result of the U.S. petroleum sector acting as an obstacle to market forces. Since the initial introduction of biofuels in the U.S. in the early 1980's, Big Oil has always viewed biofuels as an interloper in 'their' market for liquid fuels used to power automobiles and trucks. The companies which dominate the sector have long sought to limit biofuels to niche markets in the Midwest.
When Congress mandated that regions with severe air pollution problems utilize oxygenates in fuel to reduce smog in the early 1990's under amendments to the Clean Air Act, the petroleum industry insisted on using a petroleum derivative, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), to serve that purpose in most parts of the country. This industry decision succeeded in limiting the utilization of ethanol as an oxygenate outside of the Midwest for more than a decade, and dampened the growth in demand for ethanol. Annual U.S. consumption of ethanol grew at a modest rate of less than 10 percent between 1992 and 2002.
Beginning in the late 1990's, complaints about contamination of groundwater by MTBE leaking from underground fuel storage tanks began to emerge. The leaked MTBE rendered the local water supply unfit for human use at fairly low concentrations. Despite widespread concerns, the petroleum industry continued to utilize MTBE in its reformulated gasoline supply in most of the country until California, the largest state market for motor vehicle fuels in the country, passed a law requiring a phase out of its use in 2003. The petroleum industry fought to maintain use of this additive until Congress declined to provide immunity from lawsuits for the contamination problem it had caused. This effort was undertaken as part of Congressional consideration of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and only after the legislative push for legal immunity failed was MTBE finally withdrawn from use.
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