His Sweetheart "Deal" Would Bail Out Oil Industry at Taxpayer Expense

As the energy bill heats up in Congress, one of the thorniest issues facing the House-Senate conference committee is what to do about a gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which has polluted drinking water nationwide. Unfortunately, some lawmakers want to shield major oil companies from federal and state liability lawsuits that would require them to clean up widespread MTBE pollution.

It is not surprising that the biggest MTBE champions in Congress are Texas Reps. Tom Delay and Joe Barton, who represent a state that is home to many of the oil companies responsible for producing MTBE. But it is disappointing that Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) is working with them behind the scenes to let MTBE polluters off the hook.

Reps. Bass and Barton reportedly are the architects of a possible deal that would completely relieve oil companies of any direct responsibility for MTBE cleanup. Their deal would allow polluters to pay a small fraction of the massive cleanup costs into a special trust fund, partially financed by taxpayers. Moreover, their deal does not guarantee that any MTBE trust fund -- expected to total between $4 billion and $16 billion towards a pollution tab that could run as high as $85 billion -- would ever be made for cleanup. Other federal trust funds, such as Superfund, have often been raided for other purposes.

MTBE Contamination Costly and Cancer-Causing

Exposure to MTBE can cause cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While the oil industry may not have known the extent of the MTBE health hazard, thousands of pages of internal industry documents and sworn depositions from recent litigation show that -- without a doubt -- the oil industry was well aware that MTBE would pollute drinking water.

And pollute water, it has. In 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that up to 15 percent of the nation's drinking water supplies in high MTBE use areas are contaminated with this toxic pollutant. The Environmental Working Group recently reported that MTBE has been found in test samples from more than 1,800 public drinking water systems in at least 29 states -- affecting tap water supplies for between 21 million and 46 million Americans.

Make MTBE Polluters Pay

A study last month by the American Water Works Association estimated the cost of cleaning up MTBE contamination nationwide at between $25 billion and $85 billion, and growing. Lawsuits against MTBE polluters have been filed in 11 states so far, by cities, towns, water suppliers, schools and even a Methodist church -- all of which want to make sure the oil companies, not state and local taxpayers, pay those cleanup costs.

In New Hampshire, where about 60 percent of residents rely on groundwater wells for their drinking water, MTBE has been detected in more than 15 percent of public water supplies tested statewide. As a result, the state filed suit against 22 major oil companies nearly two years ago. Calling MTBE a "significant and costly threat," New Hampshire's attorney general said at the time:

"In New Hampshire, clean water is a precious resource that we depend on for drinking, recreation and every aspect of our health and economic well being…These companies knew the dangers that adding MTBE to gasoline posed to water resources. They, and not the state or its citizens, should pay the bill to fully address this unprecedented environmental problem."

For the sake of the people of New Hampshire, both their health and their money, Rep. Bass should stop trying to give oil companies -- with their record profits -- a pass for knowingly and recklessly polluting New Hampshire's waters with MTBE. And Sens. Sununu and Gregg should tell Bass "no deal" to protect MTBE polluters in the energy bill.