A key House Republican yesterday proposed resolving a sticking point in energy legislation by creating an $11.4 billion fund to clean up drinking water contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE.
The plan would require the oil industry to pay about a third of the amount in the fund, with the rest coming from the federal government and state governments. Manufacturers of the additive, which is linked to groundwater pollution around the country, would be exempted from defective-product lawsuits.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who chairs a House-Senate conference committee working on broad energy legislation, described the measure as a compromise between the House bill, which exempts MTBE manufacturers from defective-product lawsuits, and the Senate version, which does not.
"What this proposal is all about is cleaning up the water supply," said Barton, who was joined at a news conference by Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).
Opponents of legal protection for MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, denounced Barton's plan and said it is a giveaway to the oil industry. Trade groups representing the oil industry also came out against the proposal, saying the fund is larger than is needed. Cleanup estimates vary widely -- from $1.5 billion in uncovered costs to more than $30 billion.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), an opponent of legal protection for MTBE, called Barton's proposal "a deal between a few members of Congress and their . . . base supporters in the industry." She added: "They're doing this to protect these manufacturers of MTBE and putting the expense to the taxpayers."
Legal protection for MTBE was included in energy legislation in 2003, a provision that helped kill the bill. Opponents of the measure have threatened to block the legislation again this year if legal protection for the additive is included.
President Bush has made energy legislation a top priority and has urged Congress to give him a bill before its August recess. Barton said he hopes to meet that timetable.
MTBE has been widely used in gasoline to help reduce air pollution. But the additive has leaked from underground tanks, causing water pollution. Barton has said there should be legal protection for manufacturers because the government required that additives be used.
Barton's plan calls for $11.4 billion in funding over 12 years for cleanup and other compensation. The industry cost would be about $4 billion; the federal government would pay more than $4 billion and the cost to states would be nearly $3 billion.
His proposal would effectively kill defective-product lawsuits filed after September 2003, when most claims started to be filed. But it would allow an exemption for lawsuits brought more recently by state attorneys general. Barton said he knew of only one state in which that provision would apply: New Hampshire.
Capps and others said that element appears aimed at gaining the support of senators from New Hampshire. But Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who objected to the MTBE provision in 2003, issued a statement saying that he does not support Barton's measure.