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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Limits of MTBE

Air Date: Week of

Technology has brought us a long way towards a cleaner environment, but commentator Robert Braile observes that the controversy over the gasoline additive MTBE suggests technology can only go so far.


CURWOOD: While consumers wait for more alternatively-powered cars to hit the market, government regulators are trying other ways to lower auto emissions. One method is with so-called reformulated gasolines. Perhaps the most widely- used is called methyl-tertiary butyl-ether, otherwise known as MTBE. But commentator Robert Braile says a problem with MTBE has developed, and it suggests that technology can take us only so far.

BRAILE: In 1990, Congress passed amendments to the Clean Air Act requiring 28 states, from Maine to California, to cut smog. The states were given many ways to make their cuts. Most methods, such as reducing power plant emissions or installing vapor-trapping nozzles on gasoline pumps, were hardly noticeable to consumers.

MTBE was supposed to be the least noticeable of all. It's simply a chemical that fuel refineries put into gasoline that has the knack of cutting smog. It also reduces toxics like benzene, a known carcinogen. The idea was to clean the air without hassling anyone. Government officials learned a hard lesson in some states when they tried to impose enhanced auto emissions testing programs on motorists. Those programs to cut smog backfired because they forced people to change their ways. The officials learned that smog could only be cut in ways that allowed people to live as they normally do. And the petroleum industry had the answer: MTBE.

The trouble is, MTBE may also be a carcinogen. And it's turning up in drinking water wells all over the country. Maine has 4,300 contaminated wells. California, 10,000. The chemical, which moves quickly through soil, seems to be coming from leaking underground storage tanks and traffic accidents involving fuel spills. But no one knows for sure. EPA Administrator Carol Browner convened a blue ribbon panel of experts in November, giving it 6 months to report on MTBE sources, risks, and benefits.

It's unclear what Browner's panel will decide. But what is clear is that technology may not be the panacea to our environmental problems. Yes, it has taken us far, so far that it's hard not to believe it cannot take us all the way. But as America's experiment with MTBE suggests, at some point we may also have to change our ways. We may have to drive less, consume less, exploit less. At some point, we may just have to change.

CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Braile writes on the environment for the Boston Globe.



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