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The energy bill passed by the House last week would effectively immunize the oil industry from products liability claims against the gasoline additive MTBE. At press time, its fate in the Senate remained unclear. On Friday, senators voted, 57-40, to cut off debate, leaving supporters three votes shy of the 60 needed, and opponents one shy of a filibuster. “We’re going to keep voting until we pass it,” said majority leader Bill Frist, according to the Associated Press. The Senate debate made one thing clear: The MTBE provisions were pivotal in galvanizing the opposition. “The lightning rod has been MTBE,” said New York Democrat Charles Schumer, according to Reuters. Schumer led the filibuster effort, and he was joined by several Republicans, including Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. New Hampshire filed the first statewide lawsuit against oil manufacturers claiming that MTBE-methyl tertiary butyl ether-was a defective product that had contaminated water supplies. The suit was filed on Sept. 30, timed to beat the Oct. 1 effective date for the MTBE provisions that were expected to be included in the bill. But the final draft that emerged from the Republican-controlled House-Senate conference committee rolled the date back to Sept. 5. A vow to go forward Maureen Smith, senior assistant attorney general and lead attorney for New Hampshire, said the case will go forward no matter what the Senate does. “We will oppose any argument they make that they are off the hook,” she said, “and we will proceed full force with the litigation until a court directs us otherwise.” Other plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, sounded a lot less defiant. “Taking this claim away from us is like sending us into war with a squirt gun,” said Robert Gordon of New York’s Weitz & Luxenberg. Gordon said that he and co-counsel Scott Summy of Dallas’ Baron & Budd filed more than 140 lawsuits that affect more than 200 communities since Sept. 5. If the bill passes, he will be left with “only a handful” of MTBE suits. Defense attorneys pointed out that, even if the bill passes, plaintiffs will still have remedies when gas pollutes water through leaks or spills. They can avail themselves of trespass and nuisance laws along with state environmental regulations, several defense lawyers said. Hechler’s e-mail is [email protected].

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