DeLay at Center of MTBE Debate

Liability issue on front burner again

WASHINGTON -- Embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is being challenged by Democrats on one of his top prioritiesprotecting makers of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) from liability lawsuits, an issue that blocked energy legislation two years ago, said the Associated Press.

A draft Republican energy bill would protect MTBE makersincluding several major oil and refinery companies in Texasfrom lawsuits that contend the manufacturers knew the additive would contaminate drinking water, but pushed to have it widely used [image-nocss] anyway.

DeLay, joined by Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), has been the primary force behind the MTBE provision. It cleared the House two years ago, but prompted such an uproar in the Senate that it scuttled a massive energy bill that was nearing approval.

Democrats said they would try Wednesday to strip the MTBE provision from a revised energy bill being worked on by Barton's Energy & Commerce Committee. Supporters of the measure said they are confident they can beat back the challenge.

Besides the product liability shield, the draft GOP bill calls for phasing out MTBE use by the end of 2014 and giving manufacturers $1.75 billion in transition assistance. The legislation also calls for expanding the federal program that deals with leaking gasoline storage tanks and funnels more of that money into MTBE cleanup. Democrats say those funds are inadequate to deal with a cleanup task that could eventually affect thousands of communities.

In 2003, Bush administration officials at one point tried to get the MTBE measure out of the energy bill, but were rebuffed by DeLay. House Republicans say they are as determined as ever to keep it in this year's legislation.

MTBE, an oxygenate widely used in gasoline to reduce air pollution, has been found to contaminate drinking water supplies, sometimes leaving communities with expensive cleanup bills. Traces of MTBE have been found in water in almost every state, with levels high enough for potential cleanup problems in about half the states.

A number of lawsuits have been filedand more are expectedthat target the MTBE manufacturer and not just the fuel companies and gas stations that cause the MTBE to leak into groundwater. These lawsuits claim the MTBE makers knew the additive could cause pollution problems before it was widely used and should have withdrawn it. But DeLay has argued forcefully that the government essentially mandated MTBE use when it passed a 1990 law requiring gasoline to contain 2% oxygen, and that Congress should now help manufacturers transition away from making MTBE and protect them against product liability lawsuits.

"It was something that the government had pushed on these companies," Dan Allen, a DeLay spokesperson, said Tuesday, adding that the draft legislation also provides additional money to address MTBE cleanup.

Democrats argue that Congress never required MTBE, only an oxygenate.

"These provisions represent a direct assault on the nation's safe drinking water supply," said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). "MTBE producers have known for years that MTBE was a problem. They should not be asking the taxpayers to now pay for cleanup or for [a] corporate handout."

Many Democrats say the measure amounts to a massive bailout for an industry close to DeLay. One of the biggest MTBE makers, Lyondell Chemical, is based in Houstonalso DeLay's districtand gave DeLay $16,000 in campaign contributions in the 2003-04 election cycle. Another MTBE maker, Valero Energy, based in San Antonio, gave DeLay $10,000 in that cycle, according to the AP, citing the Center for Responsive Politics.

Opponents of the proposed MTBE liability waiver include groups representing mayors, cities, counties and various water districts and agencies as well as environmentalists. They argue the GOP bill would leave communities and water agencies stuck with cleanup costs. Some estimates have put those costs as high as $29 billion, a figure the industry disputes.

"There's no reality to the $29 billion number," said Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA), whose members include MTBE makers. "It's been inflated wildly to leave the impression that this MTBE problem is a lot more pervasive than it is."

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