House Energy Bill Rolls Ahead with MTBE Liability, Arctic Drilling

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 14, 2005 (ENS) – House Republicans are poised to pass a scaled down version of their controversial national energy plan, which calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and grants manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE protection from litigation.

Three committees passed key sections of the $8 billion bill on Wednesday and the full House is likely to vote on the full package next week.

But several provisions in the legislation – including the Arctic drilling language and the MTBE liability shield – are likely to prompt opposition from the Senate, which plans to start work on its version of the energy bill next month.

Debate over methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) and subsidies to oil and gas companies doomed a $24 billion version of the bill in 2003, as Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans successfully filibustered the legislation.

The latest House energy bill would cost $8 billion over 10 years, with much of the money is still earmarked to aid the oil, natural gas and coal industries.

Critics of the MTBE liability waiver say Congress did not mandate the use of gasoline additive, which is used in high smog areas to make gas burn more cleanly. They say manufacturers, who knew of the toxicity of the chemical, should be liable for clean up costs some estimate at $29 billion.

Twenty states have passed bans on MTBE in gasoline and the additive has been found in water supplies across the nation.

But a bid by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to strip the MTBE liability shield from the bill failed by a vote of 31-20.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said the liability shield is warranted because MTBE is “not defective.” Barton

Texas Congressman Joe Barton chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and serves on the House Republican Steering Committee, which coordinates strategic planning for House Republicans. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Barton)
When it leaks from underground storage tanks, MTBE dissolves in water and may get into underground water where it remains for a long time. Data on human effects is limited, but animal studies suggest drinking MTBE may cause stomach, liver and kidney damage, and nervous system effects, and breathing high levels of MTBE may cause liver and kidney cancer, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a drinking water limit as a guideline to protect children, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has set a limit for breathing MTBE on the job.

Barton and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan, are key supporters of the MTBE liability waiver – their districts are home to manufacturers of the gasoline additive.

The bill also contains language phasing out use of MTBE by 2014 and giving MTBE manufacturers $1.75 billion for transition costs, but the provision allows the White House to overturn the ban.

Michigan Democrat John Dingell called the MTBE provisions “a direct assault on the nation’s safe drinking water supply.” Dingell

Michigan Congressman John Dingell is Ranking Minority Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Dingell)
Republicans on the House Resources Committee successfully defended a provision to allow drilling in ANWR by a vote of 30-13.

The language in the bill allows leasing of 200,000 acres of ANWR’s coastal plain – known as Area 1002 – within two years.

The move could largely prove symbolic as ANWR drilling language is unlikely to be included in the Senate bill because it could be filibustered by opponents.

But momentum for drilling in the refuge is growing – last month the Senate approved a budget for 2006 that includes royalites from oil and gas leases in Area 1002, a move that is immune to filibuster.

The issue has been the source of heated debate within Congress in recent years and nearly every point in the discussion is strongly disputed by both sides.

Opening ANWR is a key piece of the Bush administration’s energy policy and proponents say it will help the nation’s reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Critics contend the coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge and oil drilling would have devastating impacts to its wildlife and do little to reduce foreign oil imports.

More than 100 species of wildlife and birds inhabit ANWR’s coastal plain, including caribou, polar bears, wolves, grizzly bears, musk oxen, and arctic foxes.

It is uncertain how much oil lies within the area, but the mean of the federal government’s estimates is 7.7 billion barrels. Once leasing is approved, it would take about a decade for oil supplies to flow from the refuge.


California Republican Congressman Ken Calvert (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Feinstein)
The rising price of gasoline is ample reason to drill in the refuge, said California Republican Ken Calvert.

“Last week it cost me $82 to fill up my SUV,” Calvert told the committee. “We’ve got to fix this. We need to bring prices down and that’s why we need ANWR.”

Raising fuel economy standards would have a much greater – and more immediate - impact on the nation’s oil consumption than drilling in ANWR, said Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, who criticized colleagues for lacking the “nerve to take on Detroit.”

Republicans – and several Democrats – on the House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected an amendment to boost fuel economy from the current 27 miles per gallon (mpg) to 33 mpg by 2014.


Massachustts Democratic Congressman Ed Markey (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Markey)
“They need to find a new gas station, so they come over to the House Resources Committee and say 'We want to build that gas station on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,'" Markey said. "You have just seen the hypocrisy coefficient enter historic levels.”

Environmentalists also raised concerns about a provision inserted into the bill by Barton that would encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to extend the compliance deadline for new smog standards. The provision would allow states to blame smog problems on other states, even though a new federal rule was recently enacted to address air pollution that drifts across state borders.

Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell said if enacted the provision would be the “biggest weakening of the Clean Air Act in decades.”

“Many millions of Americans would suffer from dirty air as a result,” O’Donnell said.

An amendment sponsored by Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee to remove the provision failed by a vote of 19-29.