President Bush showed spirited common sense on environmental policies -- before he got elected. "I don't believe in command and control out of Washington, D.C.," Bush said during the second presidential debate last fall. "Not all wisdom is in Washington, D.C., on this issue," the Texas governor reminded eco-know-it-all Al Gore.
Bush could use that reminder himself. After campaigning to restore sound science, reason and responsiveness to the regulatory process, the "Reformer with Results" is now standing by one of the dumbest, top-down environmental edicts on the books. It's enough to give the country a really unhealthy and expensive case of gas.
In 1990, Congress passed amendments to the federal Clean Air Act requiring certain highly populated cities to mix oxygen-boosting additives with their gasoline. These oxygenates, either in the form of petroleum-based methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) or corn-based ethanol, were supposed to make the reformulated gas burn cleaner. But the law -- signed by Bush's father to appease environmentalists -- failed to produce its promised results. Instead, it increased pollution, raised gas prices, and hampered states from experimenting with more cost-effective alternatives.
When California asked earlier this summer to be freed from the federal oxygenate requirement, arguing that it could make cleaner gas without using either MTBE or ethanol, the Bush administration denied the request. Who cares about devolution when the Iowa caucus is just three and half years away? A bipartisan effort in Congress to grant the waiver to California and other states also failed. So California filed suit last week.
It's a delicious irony to see California liberals decrying Big Government. But for once, they're right. Sound science didn't fuel this costly mandate. Political science -- in the form of heavy lobbying from Midwest corn growers and the deep-pocketed ethanol lobby -- did. The two federally legislated additives have been a disaster:
-- MTBE. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last weekend that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knew almost 15 years ago that MTBE "posed a serious threat to the nation's water supply, according to court documents, yet the agency did not warn Congress." If the EPA were a private corporation, environmentalists would be forcing it into bankruptcy, and Julia Roberts would be starring in the summer blockbuster movie exposing its corrupt ways. Instead, EPA quietly allowed MTBE to leak into public and private water wells across the country and continued on its merry way.
Although evidence that MTBE causes cancer is weak, its fumes are noxious and it spreads quickly through water and soil. The states finally decided to rebel against the federal law when California Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed an executive order banning the use of MTBE by the end of 2002. Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, South Dakota and Washington soon followed with similar laws phasing out MTBE.
-- Ethanol. The growing movement to phase out MTBE leaves ethanol as the only option for areas required by Washington to use oxygenates in their gas. That's a godsend to powerful ethanol interests -- namely, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, which has feasted on corn-based corporate welfare for two decades and contributes generously to both Republicans and Democrats. For consumers and the environment, however, the law's a lemon.
Without federal price supports and a generous federal excise tax exemption worth more than 5 cents a gallon at the pump, ethanol wouldn't stand a chance in the marketplace. Despite the subsidies, ethanol still costs more than regular gasoline. Cornell University's agricultural researcher David Pimentel points out: "About 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol." Retrofitting refineries to produce an ethanol blend will add at least 3 to 5 cents to a gallon of gas. Worst of all, scientists say ethanol actually causes more pollution than it solves because it produces two major smog ingredients.
Nevertheless, President Bush claims that ethanol is "good for our air." Now, he's fighting in court to force-feed it to the states and shove it down our tanks. The command-and-control culture in Washington lives on. Al Gore must be proud.