When Maryland lawmakers consider this week what to do about the gasoline additive contaminating hundreds of wells across the state, they'll be torn between appeals to protect the public's drinking water or its air.
But some environmental experts suggest that Marylanders are being confronted with a false choice - one foisted on them years ago by political horse- trading in Washington. Advances in refining have produced fuels that burn cleaner without additives.
Three bills have been introduced in Annapolis to phase out methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in gasoline within five years.
Those and other MTBE-related measures, due for a hearing Wednesday, have been drawn up by legislators from Harford County, where detection of the gas additive in 178 Fallston-area wells last summer sparked an uproar.
"There's great support in the community of Fallston and other affected areas around the state that something really needs to be done to get a handle on this," said Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford Republican and co-sponsor of one of the bills.
Added to gasoline in the early 1990s to help fight unhealthful summer smog, MTBE has leaked from underground tanks and is tough to remove once it seeps into groundwater. State officials say the additive has polluted about 600 private wells, most in the Baltimore area.
If Maryland lawmakers act to bar MTBE, the state would join 17 others, including California and New York, that have taken similar action to safeguard drinking water.
Lobbyists for the oil industry and state environmental regulators, however, are warning that motorists could wind up paying higher gas prices - and breathing dirtier air - if Maryland bans the additive.
That's because Congress ordered in 1990 that in smoggy regions such as Baltimore, "oxygenates" be added to gasoline to make it burn more cleanly. But in prescribing ingredients for cleaner-burning gas, federal lawmakers guaranteed lucrative markets for makers of MTBE and ethanol, the two chemicals then deemed acceptable.
"It was a political decision," said S. William Becker, executive director of a national association of state air pollution regulators.
If Maryland bars MTBE, federal officials are expected to require gasoline sold in the state to contain another clean-burning additive, probably ethanol.
"We're urging caution," said Charlie Drevna, director of advocacy for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.
Oil industry officials say Maryland could have difficulty getting enough ethanol because demand for the grain-based chemical in states that have barred MTBE may be outstripping the supply. And with MTBE constituting more than 10 percent of gasoline, removing it would diminish the fuel supply, industry officials say.
Air-quality studies in California have found that running vehicles on fuel with ethanol, rather than MTBE, resulted in slightly more ozone pollution - the key ingredient in smog.
"It's not a huge increase, but in a state like ours, where any amount of ozone puts us over federal environmental health standards, we can't afford any," said Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Using ethanol also has added 4 cents to 8 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline, he said.
Maryland environmental officials have not taken a position on whether to bar MTBE. Yet they contend that the groundwater problem that prompted the move to ban it could be fixed by recently adopted emergency regulations aimed at curtailing leaks of the additive. The rules require double-walled tanks and pipes when new fuel tanks are installed, and stations must monitor groundwater more closely.
"We're making every attempt to keep MTBE in the tanks and want to give a chance to have the emergency regulations work," said Herbert Meade, chief of oil control for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Harford residents say they are torn by the issue.
"We don't want MTBE in the water," said Dr. Gene Ratych, vice president of the Greater Fallston Association. "Of course, we're also conscious of the fact we don't want to remove an oxygenate and wind up with more pollutants in the atmosphere."
But others say Maryland shouldn't have to substitute ethanol for MTBE. California officials say their research has found that gasoline can be refined to burn just as cleanly without additives.
"Our contention is that they're not necessary; they should not be mandated," said Dean Simeroth, branch chief for California's Air Resources Board.
Oil industry officials agree. Refining improvements since 1990 enable the production of cleaner-burning gasoline, Drevna said.
California and New York have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to waive the federal mandate to add oxygenators to gasoline sold there. The agency rejected California's first request four years ago, but a federal appeals court ordered it to reconsider. The EPA is considering the petitions but is looking to Congress for a nationwide solution.
A phaseout of the additive mandate was included in energy legislation that the Congress narrowly failed to pass last year. A similar measure is being introduced this year but faces opposition over a likely provision that would limit industry liability for MTBE contamination of groundwater.
Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford Republican, has introduced a bill that would require Maryland officials to file a petition similar to those from California and New York. His bill also would commission a yearlong study of the economic and environmental impacts of eliminating MTBE from gasoline here.
Glassman said Maryland must proceed carefully - and probably in concert with neighboring mid-Atlantic states - but cannot stick with the status quo. He warned that more contaminated wells may be found as new state rules take effect requiring checks of groundwater around service stations.
"When these older stations start digging their monitoring wells and doing pressure tests, I think we're going to see there's an existing problem we don't even know about," Glassman said.