Don't Let GOP Leadership Bailout MTBE Polluters
by Ralph Nader
October 20, 2003
The past three years have demonstrated a disturbing trend: when tragedy befalls our country, we can count on the Republican leadership to capitalize on another opportunity to push its extremist agenda and reward its big business allies.
In the aftermath of the crippling northeastern blackout in August, Congress has been working feverishly to pass an energy bill full of supposedly beneficial energy solutions for American citizens. But behind closed doors, corporations, lobbyists, and leadership in both houses have been wrangling over just how far they can push the envelope of this bill to benefit their oily, deregulation-happy friends.
They have packed the bill with giveaways for the various big energy corporations. There are subsidies for atomic power, for Big Oil, and the repeal of a crucial historic law that has provided the regulatory framework for electricity companies.
One particularly egregious provision in the bill would shield producers of MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) from any legal claims that the chemical is "defective in design or manufacture." MTBE is a little-known toxic component of gasoline sold in many parts of the country.
MTBE is added to gasoline as part of the Clean Air Act's efforts to require the use of "oxygenates" to make gasoline burn more cleanly and efficiently. But MTBE is only one kind of oxygenate and despite manufacturers' claims to the contrary, MTBE has never been specifically mandated as a fuel additive. Released into the environment from tens of thousands of leaking storage tanks and spills, it is one of the most ubiquitous pollutants in the nation.
There is only one reason that some legislators and their oil and chemical taskmasters have pushed so hard for this immunity bailout provision: MTBE is a defective product. Documents produced at a recent trial in California proved that gasoline manufacturers have long known the cold hard truth about MTBE: because of its extreme water solubility, this toxic chemical spreads in the environment farther and faster than other components of gasoline, and it is extremely costly to clean up.
Now companies that make and use MBTE are seeking absolution from cleaning up the mess they made. Lawsuits from coast to coast seek to hold them accountable. These companies should not be shielded from foreseeable negative effects of the products they create or employ.
Citizens concerned about the safety of their drinking water are outraged that Congress is seeking to shift tens of billions of dollars in toxic cleanup costs from the biggest oil companies in the nation to taxpayers and drinking water ratepayers. The MBTE provision is tantamount to a nationwide, $30 billion tax hike. If successful, this craven effort would be one of the bigger corporate bailouts in American history and a staggering rollback of the "polluters pays" laws that have cleaned up contamination hazards in every state in the Nation. It would open a Pandora's box for manufacturers to seek liability immunity for a vast array of products with serious environmental or public health risks.
For over twenty years, United States decision-makers and courts have agreed that industries must bear the cost of cleaning up the environmental problems that they create. This is an appropriate remedy for damage caused by companies that pollute, and it deters future pollution hazards.
There is a lot of talk these days about "taking responsibility" - which corporatists masquerading as conservatives use to refer only to regular people. Here the hypocrisy of the responsibility rhetoric is laid bare:
The chemical and oil companies that make and use MTBE are specifically looking to escape their responsibility. But the usual conservative responsibility chorus is silent.
More than a few members of Congress have taken a turn singing from the responsibility hymnal. It's time for these members of Congress to fulfill their responsibilities -- by refusing to relieve corporations of theirs.
Fortunately, there are some in Congress willing to take a stand. Having seen first hand the value of the polluter pays framework in helping to clean the feculent toxic mess made by General Electric in the Hudson River, Senator Chuck Schumer has promised to filibuster if the MTBE provision remains in the bill. And last week, 42 Senators signed a "dear colleague" letter initiated by Senator Barbara Boxer asking that the energy bill conferees remove the MTBE escape from liability protection.
And a coalition of national health, environmental, science and consumer organizations have banded together to oppose the MTBE provision. Organizations of cities and water suppliers -- including The National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, American Water Works Association, National Association of Water Companies, Association of California Water Agencies, and National Rural Water Association -- have also opposed the provision.
But in order to fend off this corporate bailout, our Congressional leaders need to hear from you. Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224- 3121, and ask to speak to your Representative and Senator about this dump and run liability protection provision in the energy bill.
Ralph Nader is America’s leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)