There seems to be
plenty of finger-pointing going on, but ultimately, little is being said
about the actual reason for Phoenix's gas shortage problem. Everyone seems
to be aware that a pipeline broke and we have to wait for federal approval
before gas can begin flowing. But, isn't anyone wondering why this problem
is confined to the Phoenix metropolitan area?
The major reason for our fuel shortage is a result of changes to the Clean
Air Act in 1990. Specifically, the changes included requiring the use
of reformulated gasoline (RFG) in "nonattainment" areas. Our metropolitan
region is such an area. Thus, in an effort to avoid losing transportation
funding, state laws were passed and we were forced to adopt measures which
included the use of oxygenated gas.
Oxygenates in gasoline include MTBE (Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether) and ethanol.
The use of such oxygenated fuels to improve air quality, however, is a dubious
prospect at best. A 1997 study by the White House National Science and Technology
Council and a more recent study by the National Research Council both found
that oxygenated fuels are less effective in reducing pollution and smog than
previously believed. Also, as we've all witnessed, such fuels are not as
readily available as standard gasoline. Because they are scarcer and more
expensive to make, they cost more at the pump.
Second, oxygenated fuels are not as efficient as standard fuel. Thus, consumers
are forced to buy and use more gasoline because of lower fuel economy. Third,
there have been serious health issues linked to the use of MTBE in gasoline.
These concerns include contamination of ground water supplies.
Even embattled California Governor Gray Davis recognized the problems associated
with the use of oxygenated fuels. In 1999, he issued an executive order requiring
phaseout of MTBE by the end of 2002. Unfortunately, the federal government
denied California's request for a waiver from the federal requirements. Ultimately,
Governor Davis sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in order to
block the use of reformulated gasoline. Just last month, the Ninth Circuit
Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the district court to determine
whether the EPA abused its discretion in refusing to consider a waiver.
The refusal of the the EPA to consider any reasonable alternatives should
not be a shock to anyone familiar with the agency. It is an agency with over
17,000 employees and since its inception in 1970, the majority of administrators
and assistant administrators have been lawyers. Accordingly, it has promulgated
thousands of pages of regulations and "guidance" documents. The regulations
alone create stacks of papers two feet high!
Not surprisingly, the public wants an answer. Governor Napolitano has even
suggested "price gouging" statutes. But economists largely concur that such
price controls are a bad idea, and in any case, they do not address the larger
problem. Instead, our elected officials should focus their energy on necessary
changes in the EPA.
First, the ability of the EPA to promulgate or issue regulations should be
greatly curtailed. This can be done by requiring that every regulation be
approved by a vote of Congress before its final approval. This ensures that
legislators, who are accountable to voters, are ultimately responsible for
making decisions, as opposed to federal bureaucrats.
Second, the EPA should be required to allow states to "opt-out" or receive
waivers from environmental requirements. As is the case in welfare reform,
states should be allowed to come up with innovative or creative methods for
solving local problems. If temporary waivers are necessary, the EPA should
be required to authorize such waivers in hours, not days or weeks. In the
current shortage, such an approval would have resulted in gas flowing more
quickly into the valley.
Ultimately, EPA-imposed regulations on states and localities are another
example of regulatory delegation gone awry. Congress should be reminded that
broad delegations of power to federal agencies are constitutionally suspect
and insulate unelected bureaucrats from accountability. As the current gas
shortage illustrates, when an unaccountable federal agency imposes its will
on a state, there are often unintended consequences. Just ask anyone waiting
in line for gas.
Mark Brnovich is director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Constitutional Government.