EU backs MTBE despite US prohibition

European bans unlikely for now but expert warns of groundwater problems within ten years

The European Commission said today it had no plans to propose an EU ban on petrol additive MTBE after the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed to "significantly reduce or eliminate" use of the substance. The agency says MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is a "possible carcinogen" which has caused considerable damage to groundwater.

Speaking on Monday, agency head Carol Browner said the move was "necessary to protect America's drinking water supplies." She said the USA would be replacing the additive with ethanol, a non-petrochemical alternative. A spokesperson for environment commissioner Margot Wallström said she was "following the reasons why" the US had proposed its restrictions but had "no immediate plans" to call for similar EU rules.

MTBE use in the US has tripled over the last decade. It forms around 11% of "reformulated gasoline" - a compulsory fuel in some big cities, where it helps to reduce air emissions. However, it leaks from pipes and storage tanks and has caught public attention because it also makes water taste foul at very low concentrations.

In Europe, MTBE is used instead as an octane booster, and typically only at concentrations of around 1.6% though it is permitted up to 15%. New EU fuel and air quality laws aimed at eliminating benzene mean the use of MBTE is set to increase dramatically, however.

MTBE expert Eberhard Morgenroth of the Technical University of Denmark says the EU will soon face a "political dilemma" between protecting air quality and groundwater. "National environmental protection agencies are only slowly starting to realise the extent of problems connected to drinking water contamination with MTBE," he says. "It might be that in 10 years we will have the similar problems to the US."

Denmark last month announced plans to improve petrol station storage standards after serious MBTE contamination was found at some sites (ENDS Daily 8 February). Germany has also found contaminated sites, some formerly occupied by Soviet troops. Neither is contemplating a ban because alternative octane boosters such as benzene are more toxic.

There are no EU environmental quality limits governing MTBE, but an EU-sponsored risk assessment is underway in Finland, Europe's heaviest per-capita consumer. An oil industry source said a ban would "clearly put a restriction on [fuel] blending" and would "not be a trivial problem," but said no work had been done to estimate the impact of a ban. As one of the world's top ten high production volume chemicals, however, economic effects would very likely be significant.

Follow Up:
US EPA, tel: +1 202 260 2090. See also its list of MTBE links and a German environment agency review of MTBE use in Europe and potential environmental effects, here.

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