AUSTIN, Texas -- The administration is now in The Full Ostrich on Iraq: Dick Cheney put on a fabulous performance last Sunday on "Meet the Press," in which he insisted everything in Iraq is trickety-boo, right as rain and cheery bye. I haven't heard anyone lie with such gravitas since Henry Kissinger was in office.

            But for the complete black-is-white, up-is-down, peace-is-war mode, you have to check out this administration on the environment. I am fascinated by its rank chutzpah. The latest brass-balls moxie episode was President Bush's Monday visit to the Detroit Edison power plant in Monroe, Mich., which he actually touted as a "living example" of why his dandy Clear Skies (gag me) initiative is so good for us all. "You're good stewards of the quality of the air," Bush told the plant's pleased workers.

            The Monroe plant is one of the worst polluters in the country: In 2001, it sent 102,700 tons of sulfur dioxide, the leading cause of acid rain, into the atmosphere, along with 45,900 tons of nitrogen oxide, 810 pounds of mercury and 17.6 million tons of carbon dioxide. A study done in 2000 by ABT Associates, which the Environmental Protection Agency has used to measure the health effects of pollution, says the plant annually causes 293 premature deaths, 5,740 asthma attacks and 50,298 lost work days.

            Under Clear Skies (these people are going to kill irony), the plant will continue to shed this gentle beneficence on us all for the next 17 years. According to environmental groups, the administration's relaxation of clean air rules, known as the "new source review," will allow the plant to increase its emissions by more than 30,000 tons a year, a 56 percent increase.

            Bush told the happy Monrovians, "Lights went out last month -- you know that. It recognizes that we've got an issue with our electricity grid and we need to modernize it. The quicker we put modern equipment into our power plants, the quicker people are going to get more reliable electricity." Asked what Clear Skies (give us a break) had to do with the aged electricity grid, according to The Washington Post, "A senior Bush aide later said that Bush was not asserting that the old clean air rules led to the blackouts. 'We are unable to draw any connection without further study.'" If that wasn't what Bush asserted, then what was he asserting? That guy must have listened to a different speech than the one I did.

            Clear Skies (I give up: I refuse to call it that), which has yet to be enacted by Congress, is not to be confused with the "new source review" rules, which the administration has already changed. The Misnomer sets up a system under which dirty plants can buy "pollution credits" from clean plants and keep polluting. New source review is a glitch in the Clean Air Act passed in 1977. The Clean Air Act "grandfathered in" more than 16,000 aging plants and industrial facilities in the happy expectation that they would gradually be in compliance in a few years. The EPA estimates 30,000 Americans a year, 10 times as many were killed on Sept. 11, die each year because the Clean Air standards on coal-fired power plants have not been enforced.

            Under new source review, these dirty plants could perform routine maintenance without having to install cleaner technologies, but any major changes leading to more pollution have to meet Clean Air standards. An excellent article in the current all-environment issue of Mother Jones points out, "For nearly three decades, these facilities have gotten around the new source review rules by continually expanding and calling it 'routine maintenance.'"

            In 1999, EPA's director tried a novel approach: enforcing the law. The EPA filed lawsuits against eight power companies that together produce one-fifth of the nation's sulfur dioxide. By the end of 2000, two of the largest polluters had agreed to cut emissions by two-thirds, and others were lining up to negotiate settlements. Then Bush brought in Christine Whitman at EPA, who told Congress that if she were an attorney for one of the sued companies, "I would not settle anything." Presto, the two settlements disappeared, and so did the other offers.

            A nice little example of the under-the-radar technique was recently uncovered by Greenpeace via a 2002 email from Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group heavily funded by ExxonMobil. "Thanks for calling and asking for our help," begins this chipper memo to the White House Council for Environmental Quality. Ebell goes on to describe his group's plan to discredit an EPA study on climate change by filing a lawsuit to suppress it. "We need to drive wedge between the president and those in the administration who think they are serving the president's interests by publishing this rubbish."

            Two state attorneys general have asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate because the memo "reveals great intimacy between CEI and (the administration) in their strategizing about ways to minimize the problem of global warming. It also suggests the CEQ may have been directly involved in efforts to undermine the United States' official report, as well as the authority of the EPA administrator."

            Of course, John (Lost to a Dead Guy) Ashcroft is too busy to check it out because he's now out on a "charm offensive" to convince us all that the PATRIOT act is good for us. I always think of John Ashcroft and charm in the same sentence. Sex, too.

            By the by, I'm sure The Washington Post was making no editorial comment when it closed its story on the Monroe visit with this additional fact: "After his speech in Michigan, Bush flew to Philadelphia to a fund-raiser that brought in $1.4 million for his re-election effort."

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