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Reason To Wheeze

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and California's environmental regulators have all but abandoned their campaign to remove ethanol from the state's gasoline supply, a major retreat in the war on air pollution. The net result: an increase in smog- and cancer-causing hydrocarbon emissions of some 70 tons a day during the summer - equivalent to the amount about 2 million cars would add. It is the largest single increase in recent California history and represents a 3 percent overall increase in statewide hydrocarbon emissions - a number even higher in Southern California, where half of the cars are driven. Hydrocarbons form lung-burning ozone and fine particulate that cause some 6,500 deaths a year statewide, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). "It's the first time I can think of where emissions have gone up," said Steve Brisby, manager of fuels for the state agency. Schwarzenegger wrote to the federal Environmental Protection Agency last year seeking permission to remove the alcohol-based additive, but made no progress and has since delegated the matter to CARB. His spokesman for environmental affairs, Ashley Snee, did not return phone calls. Schwarzenegger "did pursue it in the beginning," said a CARB official who would speak only on a not-for-attribution basis, but backed off after finding there was overwhelming support in Washington for maintaining the ethanol requirement. "Unless the EPA does something in an expeditious manner, it will be a problem this summer," said Brisby. The state has no real options for eliminating the pollution being created by ethanol without federal relief, he explained, and it's not on the horizon. The EPA has effectively prevented California from taking additional action statewide to reduce pollution from gasoline by sitting on Schwarzenegger's request to waive a federal requirement to oxygenate gasoline with alcohol-based additives such as ethanol. The additives are supposed to promote complete combustion of gasoline and reduce air pollution. Last year high gasoline prices prompted members of Congress to lash out that differing state clean-air standards requiring a variety of "boutique" gasoline formulas were driving up costs at the pump, noted Matt Haber, deputy director of the air division for the federal EPA's San Francisco office. Whenever a refinery broke down, the petroleum industry could not readily import enough gasoline to California and other states to meet their individual clean-air standards. Fuel supplies would tighten and prices suddenly rise. "There's no wiggle room in this state," said Rod Spackman, a spokesperson for ChevronTexaco. "Our supply balance is very tight." Consequently, Congress inserted words to pre-empt custom-tailored state gasoline standards with a single federal standard in comprehensive energy legislation that narrowly missed passing. Observers expect a similar law to make it through Congress this year, said Edward Murphy, a group director with the powerful American Petroleum Institute in Washington. If so, concerns over the supply and price of gasoline appear to have stopped the proliferation of new state standards in their tracks. Last year, the state Air Resources Board tabled a request by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to set special clean-air standards for gasoline sold in the smoggy Los Angeles region. "We concluded it was very, very expensive," said Brisby. It would have added 10 to 20 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline. Under the proposal, Brisby explained, CARB would have required refiners in the Los Angeles area to remove ethanol and some of the heavier chemicals in gasoline and replace them with lighter, less polluting compounds. This would have reduced hydrocarbon emissions by some 35 tons per day in greater Los Angeles and lowered levels of airborne particulate. The proposal would have increased the cost of gasoline, Brisby said, because producing the chemicals is more expensive and they most likely would have had to be shipped into Los Angeles by sea. To meet the requirement to oxygenate gasoline, the state made oil companies add MTBE to gasoline beginning in 1996. However, when the additive contaminated drinking-water supplies, the state in 1999 ordered a phase-out of MTBE by the end of 2003, and it was replaced by ethanol. In Washington, it appears that EPA officials are awaiting action by Congress, where farm-state lawmakers are pressing for greater use of ethanol - the only alternative to MTBE for oxygenating gasoline - because it is made from corn. Leading California Democrats have supported the waiver, but have been stymied by farm-state interests. Meanwhile, caught between a state ban on MTBE and the lack of a federal waiver of the oxygenate standard, refiners have had no choice but to add more than 5 percent ethanol to gasoline, despite its bad effect on California's air quality. A study by CARB scientists, completed late last year, shows the addition of ethanol to gasoline has caused emissions of smog-forming hydrocarbons to increase by some 7 percent from California's 24 million autos, which are, according to Brisby, the number-one source of air pollution. Ethanol in gasoline has increased hydrocarbon emissions by 68 tons per day in the summer, the study shows, not counting potential increases still being investigated by CARB from boats and gasoline engines not used in cars. The problem is that ethanol more readily leaks through rubber and plastic parts in engines, gasoline pumps and gas cans, according to the CARB study. As it leaks, it also pulls with it benzene and other toxic chemicals in gasoline. Abnormally cool weather last summer may have masked the effect of the increased emissions from ethanol. This summer - which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts will be hotter than normal - Southern Californians likely will feel the effects of the additional pollution. About the only relief on the horizon for California is passage of federal energy legislation. If the bill is re-introduced and passed as written last year, it would require greater use of ethanol nationwide, but also would eliminate the oxygenate requirement and let refiners use more ethanol in areas without an air-pollution problem, according to Murphy at the petroleum institute. Greater use of ethanol in those areas would make farm states happy while actually loosening demand for cleaner chemicals that refiners could use in place of ethanol in gasoline made for California and other states plagued by smog, said Murphy. Even if the provisions passed, it likely would take years for refiners to make such changes. Meanwhile, Californians will breathe dirtier air.

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