Hoping to rescue energy legislation stalled in the Senate, Republicans were discussing elimination of a controversial provision to give legal protection to the makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive found to contaminate drinking water, officials said.
THESE SOURCES, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Senate and House officials, as well as the Bush administration, have discussed the suggestion, but no decisions have been made.
Another GOP source emphasized that House Republican leaders so far have refused to give in on the MTBE liability protection. This source expressed doubt that a solution can be reached over the next three days, meaning an energy bill probably would have to be put off until next year.
The energy bill, a top priority of President Bush, is stymied in the Senate. Supporters fell two votes short of the 60 needed to advance it to final passage last week.
The proposal under discussion would remove the legal protection in the bill for makers of MBTE as well as ethanol, along the lines of a suggestion made on the Senate floor by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Daschle, whose state would benefit from a variety of ethanol-related provisions in the measure, supports the bill and voted to advance it to passage last week.
After that vote, he said there “should be no doubt” that if the MTBE liability provisions were taken out, the energy bill would pass the Senate and be enacted into law. He proposed that “safe harbor language be eliminated for ethanol as well as MTBE.”
The MTBE provision originated in the House, where it has the strong support of Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who led the House energy bill negotiations. Most MTBE is produced in Texas and Louisiana.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on Sunday blamed the gridlock over energy on lawyers who are flooding the courts with lawsuits against MTBE manufacturers.
“The trial lawyers held the bill up,” he said, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” arguing that the industry turned to MTBE because of “a federally mandated program to reduce (air) pollution” and should be protected.
“They were forced to create the product,” said Hastert.
Critics of the additive have argued that the oil industry chose MTBE to meet federal air pollution requirements, although they knew as far back as the mid-1980s that the oxygenate would be difficult to control and clean up if it got into water supplies. Cleanup costs have been put as high as $29 billion, although the industry has said that number is exaggerated.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he was giving senators 48 hours to find a solution. “If we can’t get it done by Tuesday, we won’t see (the energy bill again) until January,” he said on CNN.
While many senators complained the bill had too many favors for special interests, cost too much and failed to do enough to curb energy use, it was the MTBE issue that tipped sentiment against the legislation, which earlier had breezed through the House.
“A safe harbor for manufacturers of MTBE is unacceptable,” said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., whose state has filed a lawsuit against 22 oil and chemical companies seeking damages from water contamination.
House Republicans appeared to be digging in.
DeLay accused Senate opponents of the energy bill of using MTBE “as a scapegoat to obstruct” the energy legislation. He said MTBE manufacturers be protected as part of a compromise expanding use of corn-based ethanol, a rival additive.
“The MTBE and ethanol provisions are a true compromise that will become law,” said DeLay, who pushed to make the waiver retroactive to Sept. 5 so a string of new lawsuits would be covered.
Once viewed as important to reducing pollution from automobiles, MTBE became an object of scorn when it was found that it was difficult to contain and clean up once it gets into drinking water. Traces of MTBE have been found in almost every state and it has the potential of becoming a serious problem in at least 28 states, according to government and private studies.
“Cash-strapped local governments should not be forced to bear the cost” of MTBE cleanup and “it is unconscionable that MTBE manufacturers should be shielded,” said Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities.
The National Conference of Mayors has estimated that the cleanup bill from MTBE contamination could be as high as $29 billion.
But a spokesman for MTBE manufactures, Frank Maisano, called the number “wildly overstated” and put the cost “directly attributed to MTBE remediating” at no more than $1 billion.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.