WASHINGTON – House and Senate conferees abandoned giving makers of the gasoline additive MTBE liability protection against environmental lawsuits on Sunday, removing the major roadblock to enactment of broad energy legislation.
Senate negotiators rejected a House proposal for an $11.4 billion MTBE cleanup fund that House Republicans had hoped would serve as a compromise and still provide the liability shield to the oil industry.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said “the proposal has not been accepted by the Senate” and said he will offer another MTBE proposal today.
But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., leader of the Senate energy negotiating team, said that while some MTBE issues still were being discussed, those did not include a cleanup fund nor liability protection.
“Those are gone,” Domenici told reporters as the House-Senate conferees held an unusual Sunday session in hopes of completing work on a sweeping energy bill.
If the negotiators are successful, Congress could pass an energy bill before week’s end, meeting an Aug. 1 goal to have a bill at the White House, as urged by President Bush.
The legislation would create billions of dollars in tax breaks and other federal subsidies such as loan guarantees for energy industries and for energy conservation. It also would provide a boon to farmers by requiring billions of gallons of corn-based ethanol to be used in gasoline.
The MTBE liability issue has dogged lawmakers trying to pass an energy bill for more than two years. Many senators have vowed to block any bill that includes a House-favored provision that would shield MTBE makers against lawsuits that claim the additive is a defective product and that the industry knew years ago it would pose cleanup problems if it leaked into water supplies.
An additive introduced into widespread use in the mid-1990s to reduce air pollution, MTBE has been found in drinking-water supplies in at least 36 states, causing foul taste and smell.