A Tale of Three Additives (Part I)
What is the real story behind the additives in our gasoline?
- Regulators who should have been asking tough questions and protecting public health, were "captured" by the regulated industry.
- MTBE's edge over the next-most- popular additive included being slightly cheaper. It had powerful friends in the fossil fuel lobby, since it can be produced from oil and natural gas.
- Unlike most ingredients of gasoline, the famously soluble compound MTBE spread rapidly through soil and infiltrated groundwater.
- When the U.S. Congress declined to grant oil companies immunity from "defective product" lawsuits, the companies quickly made plans to phase out the additive.
- The story of gasoline additives is a story of greed and corruption, of unintended consequences and failed due diligence, of lack of imagination — and a bandwagon mentality.
Gasoline has been the fuel of choice for motor vehicles for nearly a century. Yet, surprising as it may sound, pure gasoline is unfit for the job. Additives are required to keep gasoline from combusting prematurely and damaging engines.
The history of gasoline is therefore also the history of the additives that dominated the industry — and did so in a sequence: First, it was lead from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Then, the world turned to MTBE from the 1980s to the beginning of this decade — and, most recently, it is ethanol. (Those dates reflect the experience of the United States. In other nations, lead was phased out later, or is still used today.)
Why did we come to depend on these three chemicals in particular? How did each come to dominate so completely? And why did lead and MTBE then fall from favor?
The story of these additives is a story of greed and corruption, of unintended consequences and failed due diligence, of lack of imagination — and a bandwagon mentality. But the story has redeeming qualities as well, as regulators and industry have profited from lessons learned in each case.
In the early days of the automobile, there was no single standard for fuel. Henry Ford made his first cars run on alcohol, which was cheap and easy to produce, as the raw material — for example, corn and farm waste for ethanol — was cheap and plentiful.
The emerging oil industry was eager to make gasoline the fuel of choice. However, pure gasoline was unsuitable, as it caused engines to “knock” (compression by the pistons caused the gasoline to combust prematurely).
To compensate, the big corporations tested a variety of “anti-knock” additives. GM research showed that ethanol could do the job, but instead, the big corporations — led by GM and DuPont — lined up behind tetra-ethyl lead. That additive’s advantage was that it was patented and proprietary — and thus immensely profitable.
Never mind that lead was a well-known poison, that workers in tetra-ethyl lead factories died and went insane, and that prominent public health experts predicted exhaust from leaded fuel would threaten the health of every American.
Industry insisted it was safe to the public, and as Jamie Lincoln Kitman documented in a special report in The Nation in 2000, government regulators rolled over. The Surgeon General of the United States even went so far as to promote leaded gasoline abroad.
It was not until the 1970s that regulators finally acted to ban the additive in the United States, seeing it for the public health threat it was, and also an obstacle to cleaner-burning fuel and better gas mileage, since lead ruined catalytic converters. Many nations have followed suit. Others, especially in the developing world with still unsophisticated or pliable governments, are still buying the poison product.
In short, it was greed that put lead in gasoline, and it was inertia that kept it there — along with a coordinated campaign of misinformation about alternatives that were safer.
Regulators who should have been asking tough questions and protecting public health, were — in the polite vocabulary of policy analysis — “captured” by the regulated industry for many years, until the damage done by lead was too obvious to be ignored.
With lead moving out of the picture, a whole new field of possibilities opened up. U.S. regulators and the public began demanding a lot more of automobiles and their fuels. Not only did they want them to be free of neurotoxins like lead, but they also wanted them to burn more cleanly — to reduce air pollution and smog, and get decent gas mileage.
The fuels industry soon found itself drawn to a new favorite additive: methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE. MTBE had good anti-knock properties, it was a good oxygenate (that is, it made fuel burn more cleanly) — and it had decent energy content.
Other contenders, including a variety of alcohols, performed similarly well. But MTBE’s edge over the next-most-popular additive, ethanol, included being slightly cheaper and being somewhat easier to handle and mix with gasoline. It also had powerful friends in the fossil fuel lobby, since it can be produced from oil and natural gas.
When U.S. regulators were still in the global vanguard and established Clean Air Act standards in the early 1990s, they required the use of oxygenates in areas of the country with air quality problems. However, they didn’t specifically endorse or require MTBE.
MTBE was approved as one among a variety of other oxygenates. But regulators knew MTBE would likely be the oxygenate of choice — and, as became clear later on, they failed to consider the likely side effects of that choice.
With MTBE in about 70% of the U.S. gas supply (nearly half of that formulated to meet federal standards, in concentrations of up to 15% by volume) it entered millions of underground storage tanks. From there, it leaked into the ground.
And unlike most ingredients of gasoline, which form a sticky mess and repel water, the famously soluble compound MTBE spread rapidly through soil and infiltrated groundwater.
Soon, the carcinogen — for that is what belated studies in the 1990s showed it to be, at least in laboratory animals — was being found in aquifers and drinking water supplies across the country.
The political reaction was violent. Half of all U.S. states moved to ban MTBE. The U.S. federal government did not ban MTBE outright, but in 2005 the U.S. Congress directed the EPA to remove MTBE from the list of approved oxygenates for the Clean Air Act programs.
Even more importantly, the Congress declined to grant oil companies immunity from “defective product” lawsuits. The companies quickly made plans to phase out the additive.
Unlike lead, MTBE had some legitimate merits as a gasoline additive. Unfortunately, the impacts of the decision to adopt MTBE as part of the nation’s gasoline formula — a decision made jointly, in a sense, by industry and government — were not thought through carefully enough.
Enormous strides have been made since the late 1980s to renovate and improve the nation’s underground storage tank infrastructure.
If such efforts had been made earlier and more aggressively (even today, nearly four in ten underground storage tanks are still not in full compliance), MTBE might have been a more viable choice. And certainly, definitive toxicology studies ought to have been performed much earlier.
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II appears tomorrow on The Globalist.