Final favor

As President Clinton limps through his final days in office, California Gov. Gray Davis, and the state’s oil companies, are hoping he will do them one last favor and issue an administrative waiver to release California from federal requirements regarding the way gasoline is formulated.

Waiving the federal law would allow the state to be rid of MTBE, the oxygenate additive that results in cleaner air yet pollutes the water. The oil companies say that they can make a cleaner-burning gas without MTBE—if only the federal government will drop its requirement that gasoline include oxygenates. Unfortunately, that position ignores both the oil industry’s egregious history and the existence of a perfectly good substitute for MTBE that would be of tremendous benefit to Northern California.

Let’s not forget: The oil industry lobbied for the introduction of MTBE, profited from its production and used it as an excuse for huge price hikes. MTBE would never have been introduced in the first place had it not been for the efforts of oil industry lobbyists, who persuaded then-President Bush to change a proposed amendment to the Clean Air Act that was intended to promote ethanol and other alternative fuels. Instead, the amendment required the introduction of oxygenates, and the lobbyists then went to work on state regulators in California to ensure that the additive of choice would be MTBE. The result was that MTBE went from being a waste product of the refining process to a $3 billion-a-year industry, and gasoline became a threat to the state’s water supply.

Now the oil companies want a waiver from the federal law that their own lobbyists helped put in place; but a far better course of action would be to mandate that MTBE be phased out and ethanol phased in.

Obviously, a transition to ethanol would not be problem-free. But the truth is that the biggest obstacle to ethanol has always been the oil industry’s opposition. Given federal incentives, ethanol could be a boon to both Sacramento’s air quality and the north state economy. It is a renewable, environmentally safe fuel that can be produced right here in Northern California from rice straw, a process that could both reduce dependence on foreign oil and clear the air of rice smoke. It’s an opportunity California can’t afford to miss, and Clinton should realize that, even if Davis can’t.