Return to topThis image allows you to access site resources
Newspaper Subscription
Breaking News
Front Page (Image)
- Politics & Government
- Health News & Info.
- Special Reports
Local & State
Business & Stocks
Arts & Ent.
Weekly Sections
Seven Day Archives
Nuevo Mundo
Viet Mercury
Mortgage Chart
Find a Job
Find a Car
Find a Home
Home Improvement
Home Valuation
Advertising Info
Newspaper Services
Mercury News Jobs
Site ?'s & Problems
Contact the Merc
Letters to the Editor

Email a friend
Save on Palm
Print this Page

National News

Published Monday, Aug. 13, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

State sues U.S. agency over ethanol

A federal mandate on the gasoline additive is a political payoff to Midwest corn growers, Gov. Gray Davis says in declaring that the requirement would harm California.

Mercury News

Fearing steep gasoline price increases and more air pollution, California environmental officials have filed a lawsuit to stop the Bush administration from requiring refineries to blend ethanol into the state's gasoline supply.

The lawsuit, announced Sunday, seeks to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to waive a requirement that an oxygen-boosting additive -- such as ethanol or MTBE -- be put in gasoline to make it burn cleaner.

State officials say reformulated gasoline can be produced in California that meets federal air quality goals without either MTBE or ethanol, which both pose additional pollution problems.

Gov. Gray Davis has ordered MTBE, a refining byproduct currently used in most gasoline in California, banned by Jan. 1, 2003, because it can pollute groundwater.

That leaves only ethanol, a fermented byproduct of corn produced with a federal subsidy mostly in the Midwest, as an option. Yet ethanol increases the most common air pollutants in California and could drive gasoline prices up by 50 cents a gallon, said Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Davis said in a statement Sunday that the federal requirement on fuel additives is ``a straitjacket mandate'' based on ``politics, pure and simple.''

``The potential for harm to Californians, both economically and environmentally, leaves me no choice but to fight back with both guns blazing,'' Davis said.

Officials of the U.S. EPA were not commenting Sunday on the lawsuit, which was filed late Friday in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The 1990 Clean Air Act required blending oxygenates in gasoline sold in areas that do not meet federal clean air standards. However, a provision of the act allows this requirement to be waived if a state can prove it can meet the standards without the additives, or that the additives would hamper efforts to comply with the act. California sought that waiver, but Midwest lawmakers helped block the state's request.

Bush rejection

``We provided a truckload of information to support our request,'' Hickox said Sunday. But the incoming Bush administration ordered another review, which led to the rejection.

When blended with gasoline, ethanol cuts emissions of carbon monoxide from automobile tailpipes. But carbon monoxide is not a major contributor to smog in California. And a number of studies, including those done by the federal EPA, show ethanol can increase emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, the major ingredients in smog and California's most troublesome air pollutants.

In rejecting California's waiver, the EPA said it was unable to determine that the oxygenate would increase air pollution and interfere with the state's attainment of clean air standards.

But state officials and environmentalists say the Bush administration ignored science and heeded the political influence of Midwestern corn farmers and the ethanol industry, dominated by Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Ill.

``It's not sound science,'' said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, a Washington, D.C., non-profit watchdog group. ``It's political science.''

``We do not believe subsidizing Midwest corn farmers is a clean-air strategy,'' said Roland Hwang, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supports California's lawsuit.

Spokesmen for the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry group, and for Archer Daniels Midland could not be reached for comment Sunday.

California officials say they don't want to see the need for ethanol spike another crisis the way supply problems drove up electricity costs over the past year.

Oxygenates are now required in 70 percent of the 14.5 billion gallons of gasoline sold in California each year -- more than any other state, Hickox said.

If the state is forced to use ethanol, it will need 600 million gallons a year -- more than a third of the total ethanol production in the country last year. The demand could climb to 900 million gallons if refiners decided to blend it in all of California's gasoline for production reasons, Hickox said.

California produces only 5 million to 7 million gallons of ethanol a year, leaving the state dependent on the Midwest.

Ethanol would have to be imported from corn states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois by barges, rail cars and trucks. It cannot be sent to California in pipelines because it easily mixes with water and could cause corrosion. It also needs its own storage tanks.

The state's refiners may have to spend as much as $1 billion to convert their facilities for ethanol by the Jan. 1, 2003, MTBE-phaseout deadline.

State officials have estimated that the cost of refitting refineries would add 3 to 5 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline. But the state Energy Commission estimates an ethanol supply shortage, caused by a Midwest drought or transportation problems, could trigger price spikes of as much as 50 cents a gallon.

`Reckless' assumption

Ethanol producers insist they can meet demand, Hickox said, but ``it would be a reckless play on our part to assume that is the case.''

Ryan Knoll, spokesman for the Oxygenated Fuels Association, which represents MTBE manufacturers, called the lawsuit ``misdirected.''

``We think the state should re-evaluate MTBE because groundwater pollution has been largely eliminated over the past several years,'' he said.

``The solution to the whole problem is right here. It's what we use now, and it maintains a stable price in California,'' Knoll said. ``Why are we looking to ban this thing and create a whole other problem?''

Hickox said no decision has been made on extending the deadline to phase out MTBE. ``We're still gathering information to provide the governor options in addition to taking this legal action,'' he said.

By the end of September, Davis will know all his options and can act before the end of the year, Hickox said, giving refiners time to adjust.

Davis and all 54 members of the California congressional delegation have asked for a waiver for two years, with no success.

And on Aug. 1, the House defeated an amendment to an energy bill by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, to allow California a waiver from the ethanol mandate. With strong opposition from Midwest lawmakers of both parties, the amendment lost 300-125.

Contact Frank Sweeney at or (408) 920-5675.

Return to top This image allows you to access site resources
© 2001 The Mercury News. The information you receive online from The Mercury News is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material. Mercury News privacy policy