Chevron Seeks to Stop Using Additive MTBE


In a significant reversal, Chevron Corp. and a leading oil industry group are taking steps to stop using a key additive in gasoline that helps cut smog, oil company executives said Tuesday.

Just a few months ago, the oil industry, the California Air Resources Board and even some environmentalists mounted a major lobbying effort against legislation to ban the additive MTBE.

Tuesday’s statements come amid mounting concern that although MTBE may help clean California’s air, it is leaking from gasoline storage tanks, mixing with ground water and threatening to pollute drinking water.


Doug Henderson, executive director of the Glendale-based Western States Petroleum Assn., said Tuesday that his group is backing federal legislation by Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) that would permit California refiners to omit MTBE from gasoline, so long as clean air standards still can be met.

“The proclamations about the dangers of MTBE are exaggerated, but we don’t want to be complacent about any [water] contamination,” said Henderson, whose group represents major oil firms.

On Monday, Chevron, the state’s largest refiner, announced that the company is supporting Bilbray’s bill. Chevron also is asking the state Air Resources Board to allow it to make gasoline without MTBE, saying in a statement that MTBE and similar chemicals “do little to reduce smog,” and is a threat to water supplies.

Seven wells in Santa Monica have been shut because of MTBE contamination, and water experts fear that MTBE will foul more wells in years to come.

“We see that it has clearly become a political chemical,” K.C. Bishop, a Chevron lobbyist in Sacramento, said Tuesday.

“It took our guys a long time to see what angst there was over this chemical,” Bishop added. “We are convinced we can make our delivery systems tight and avoid leaks. But there’s a real perception problem. When customers are concerned, we’re concerned.”


MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, adds oxygen to gasoline and makes it burn cleaner. It is a suspected carcinogen, albeit less toxic than the additive it replaced--benzene, a known human carcinogen.

Although it has been used in gasoline for years to make it burn more efficiently, the amounts were small until the 1990s. With stricter state and federal clean-air requirements, refiners, led by Atlantic Richfield, increased the MTBE content in gasoline to 11% in California.

Oil industry officials plan to meet with state Air Resources Board officials Friday to sort out the situation. Among the problems is how to retool refineries to make gasoline without MTBE.

Oil refiners--led by Chevron and Arco--spent at least $3 billion in the 1990s to convert their California refineries so they could add MTBE to gasoline as part of a renewed effort to clean the air.

“It took four or five years to build all these projects,” Bishop said. “It would probably take less than that [to dismantle them]. Chances are it would require everybody to retool.”

It is not known how much a retooling might add to the cost of gasoline, although prices went up a few cents a gallon after MTBE was added in larger amounts.


In taking their stand, Chevron and the Western States Petroleum Assn. joined Tosco, another major California gasoline manufacturer that endorsed the Bilbray legislation a month ago, in urging that MTBE be scrapped.

Arco, the Los Angeles-based oil company whose sister firm, Arco Chemical Co., is one of the nation’s largest producers of MTBE, has not joined the chorus.

“Arco firmly believes that MTBE is an important element in cleaner burning gasoline,” Arco spokesman Scott Loll said Tuesday.

In a dramatic example of the power of talk radio, Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), who had sponsored legislation to ban MTBE, joined conservative talk show hosts earlier this year in denouncing the chemical, saying it causes cancer and other ailments ranging from rashes to asthma.

Although Henderson and Bishop insisted Tuesday that Chevron and the trade group are not reversing positions, they did join state officials and some environmentalists at that time in defending MTBE against Mountjoy’s attack.

At the time, lobbyists for Chevron and the petroleum group joined others in contending that MTBE was largely responsible for helping to rid the air of other cancer-causing pollutants, chief among them the highly toxic benzene.


Joan Denton, then a top official with the state Air Resources Board and now head of a state agency that investigates the health effects of pollutants, called MTBE one of the most studied of chemicals, and labeled claims that it causes illness “baloney.”

“The air benefits of the new gasoline are unquestionable, immediate and of lasting importance,” James Strock, then head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, declared in April.

Mountjoy’s bill passed, though in a weakened version.

The bill signed into law by Gov. Pete Wilson requires that a study of the health effects of MTBE be completed in 1999.

Hailing the announcement by Chevron and the petroleum association, Mountjoy predicted Tuesday that “MTBE will be out of the fuel before the study is complete. It’s going to unravel. I think it’s the end.”

State officials were notably less laudatory of the chemical Tuesday than they were earlier this year. John Dunlap, chairman of the state Air Resources Board, emphasized that California does not require that MTBE be added to gasoline. He said he too has endorsed Bilbray’s legislation.