WASHINGTON – Motorists in California, New York and Connecticut will have to continue using corn-based ethanol (search) in their gasoline to cut air pollution at an extra cost of up to 8 cents a gallon.
The three states had asked the Environmental Protection Agency to waive a 1990 requirement in the Clean Air Act that gasoline contain an oxygenate — either ethanol or MTBE (search) — to help fight air pollution.
In a boost to corn and ethanol producers, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson decided Thursday that the states had not shown that using an oxygenate has prevented or interfered with their ability to meet federal air standards.
The agency said it considered other factors, including "increased energy security and support for rural and agricultural economies." Critics accused the agency of playing "ethanol politics."
Oxygenate additives on average increase the price for gasoline by 4 cents to 8 cents per gallon, the EPA estimates. But the benefits include at least 100,000 tons per year fewer smog pollutants nationally. That is equivalent to the tailpipe emissions of 16 million vehicles.
Federal law requires that the gasoline used in certain metropolitan areas with the worst smog contain 2 percent oxygen by weight. The law does not say which oxygenate must be used, but most refiners use either ethanol or methyl tertiary butyl ether, known as MTBE.
Only ethanol is used in California, New York and Connecticut because they banned MTBE, which has been found to pollute groundwater.
Lawmakers from the affected states were disappointed by the EPA's decision.
"With gas prices already through the roof it is unconscionable for the EPA to play ethanol politics," said Sen. Charles Schumer, (search) D-N.Y. "There are many other ways to keep the air clean without using ethanol, but the EPA is more interested in political games than the costs to New York drivers."
Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, said the order was a "gargantuan gift to the ethanol industry."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (search), D-Calif., said her state's gasoline is formulated to a higher standard than required by the Clean Air Act (search) before ethanol is mixed in. She said some research shows that ethanol even contributes to summer smog.
"The scientific evidence linking ethanol blended gasoline with air pollution continues to mount," Feinstein said. "Yet the EPA continues to resist taking the right action."
The EPA in 2001 rejected California's request for a waiver. A federal appeals court ordered the Bush administration to reconsider the decision.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, a trade group, said the decisions benefits everyone, not just farmers and ranchers.
"Ethanol burns cleaner, is lower cost and contains a renewable fuels component," said Bob Stallman, the federation's president.
Ethanol or MTBE gasoline blends have been in use since 1995. Currently they are in use in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
In April, the House passed an energy bill that would eliminate the 2 percent oxygenate requirement.