WASHINGTON – Embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) is being challenged by Democrats on one of his top priorities — protecting makers of the gasoline additive MTBE (search) from liability lawsuits, an issue that blocked energy legislation two years ago.
A draft Republican energy bill would protect MTBE makers, including several major oil and refinery companies in Texas, from lawsuits that contend the manufacturers knew the additive would contaminate drinking water, but pushed to have it widely used anyway.
DeLay, joined by Rep. Joe Barton (search), a fellow Texas Republican, 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 will try on Wednesday to strip the MTBE provision from a revised energy bill being worked on by Barton's Energy and 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 funnel 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're as determined as ever to keep it in this year's legislation.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, is an oxygenate widely used in gasoline to reduce air pollution (search). But it also 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 filed — and more are expected — that 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claim the MTBE makers knew the additive could cause pollution problems before it was widely used, and should have withdrawn it.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 percent 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 spokesman, said Tuesday, adding that the draft legislation also provides additional money to address MTBE cleanup.
Democrats argue the 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 (search), is based in Houston — also DeLay's district — and gave DeLay $16,000 in campaign contributions in the 2003-04 election cycle, while another MTBE maker, Valero Energy (search), also based in Texas, gave DeLay $10,000 in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (search).
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 eventual 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 and Refiners Association (search), 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."