December 06, 2006

Wyden to Hold Up EPA NomineeOver High Levels of Benzene in Oregon, Northwest

Portland - Saying that Oregon and the Northwest could be hurt - not helped - by a proposed new federal rule regarding the amount of the cancer-causing chemical benzene that can be in gasoline, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden today said he would hold up the confirmation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) General Counsel nominee Roger Martella unless the rule is changed to protect Oregonians and others in the Northwest.

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and reports in The Oregonian, gasoline in Oregon and the Northwest contains almost twice as much cancer-causing benzene as the national average and three times as much as California gasoline, which is strictly regulated.

Ironically, federal regulators allow the high levels of benzene in gasoline in Oregon and the Northwest because when the USEPA started to regulate air, they focused on the dirtiest, most populated areas. Thus, because the air was and still is cleaner here, the federal government did not regulate fuel in Oregon and the Northwest and its residents are put more at risk by the allowance of unlimited amounts of benzene in fuel.

"The proposed USEPA rule could turn the Northwest into an environmental sacrifice zone, endangering our residents by the very air they breathe," Wyden said. "We need a nationwide minimum standard that says you can have this much benzene in gasoline and that's it. It should not vary from region to region. I am holding up this nomination to send a very clear message to USEPA."

According to the Oregon Department of Energy and The Oregonian, Oregon gets 90 percent of its gasoline from refineries in Washington State, with more than 80 percent of that gasoline coming from oil from the North Slope of Alaska. The Alaska oil may have 10 times the benzene as oil from other parts of the country, according to USEPA.

Following several lawsuits over the regulation of benzene and other toxic air pollutants, the USEPA finally is proposing a rule to reduce benzene nationwide using a controversial system under which refineries could trade pollution credits. Refineries in certain states could extract benzene fairly inexpensively and also may have markets to which to sell the benzene.

However, reducing benzene from gasoline in the Northwest would be expensive and few markets exist in the Northwest for the benzene. Since the proposed USEPA rule just mandates an average minimum of benzene nationwide - versus minimums of benzene in every part of the country - Northwest refineries could just buy pollution credits from refineries that do reduce benzene. Under this scenario, residents of Oregon and the Northwest would be left unprotected.

Wyden says that when Congress returns in November, he plans to put a hold on the nomination of Martella to be USEPA's General Counsel until EPA changes its proposal to reduce the high levels of benzene in Oregon and the Northwest. As General Counsel, Martella would have a role in the rulemaking.