Less MTBE, more daylight in energy bill

Widely reported today is the marvelous news that Congress has rejected a provision in the energy bill to shield oil companies from MTBE lawsuits.

The House of Representatives floated a proposal for an $11 billion fund to clean up MTBE contamination, with just $4B coming from oil companies. But Senator Pete Dominici of New Mexico said as of yesterday both the proposed fund and the liability protection are gone from the bill.

Dropping the shield for oil companies is a huge boon for cities facing multi-billion dollar cleanup costs for groundwater contaminated by the gasoline additive.

Recent studies by the American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies found that the total costs for MTBE cleanups in the 36 states that have so far reported contamination could top $85 billion.

According to a recent Bloomberg News article, "In the only MTBE case in which a jury reached a verdict, California's South Lake Tahoe Water District in 2002 won a judgment that MTBE and gasoline blended with MTBE were defective products. Total payments from a unit of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Equilon Enterprises and other companies, came to over $69 million.

"In 2003 Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron Corp. agreed to pay the city of Santa Monica, California, $92.5 million and spend hundreds of millions more to remove MTBE from the municipal water supply."

The MTBE bailout was one of the biggest obstacles preventing Congress from passing the two-year-old energy legislation. Among the other major roadblocks still facing the bill are whether tax subsidies should help fund renewable energy or the oil industry, and just how much corn-based ethanol the Midwest should pump out nationwide.

Should the energy bill ever get to the White House for Bush's signature, taxes and corn oil won't likely catch the attention of the average American. But another issue that has hardly raised eyebrows in D.C. will certainly provoke cries of joy or rage across the country.

The L.A. Times reported last week that members of the House and Senate agreed to extend daylight-saving time by four weeks as part of the energy bill. Clocks would jump forward in mid-March, and roll back at the beginning of November under the new plan, meaning that Halloween will have a lot more sun, and a lot fewer pranks, for better or worse.

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