Unclearly good news

DID THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION really just give California something it has wanted for years? Sort of. Maybe. OK, not really. But that hasn't stopped anyone -- even a few Democrats -- from pretending that Washington is actually helping to reduce smog in Los Angeles.

The confusion stems from new federal rules concerning additives that make gasoline burn more cleanly. One such additive is ethanol, which is generally made from corn; another is MTBE, a chemical compound that is often used to replace lead in gasoline. But MTBE pollutes groundwater and has been banned in California since 1999, and ethanol is expensive here because it must be imported from corn-producing states.

Under the new rules, California no longer will have to add ethanol to gasoline -- something for which state officials have been lobbying since 2001. (They argue that refiners can make gasoline burn just as cleanly without it.) This fact, coupled with the news that the change could reduce the average price of a gallon of gas by 8 cents, was enough for Sen. Dianne Feinstein to declare the change "great news for California." But she may have spoken too soon.

The Environmental Protection Agency repealed the ethanol requirement because one provision of last year's energy bill required it to do so. But another provision of the very same bill will require refiners to add ethanol, although the amounts have not been set. (The old requirement was 2%.) And gas prices have increased so much since 2001 that the 8-cent savings amounts to chump change. Nor will prices drop anytime soon. California refiners aren't planning immediate changes. Many are locked into contracts for this year and are waiting to see how much ethanol the feds will be requiring.

So what has California gotten out of this? Probably a little smog relief. The new rules allow for more flexibility, so there's a good chance state regulators will ban ethanol in the summer months, when it has been shown to actually increase smog, and then reinstate ethanol requirements in winter. It also could trade ethanol credits with other states, but that may be prohibitively expensive.

It's another case of being careful of what we wish for. In this instance, we got it. Sort of.

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