AUSTIN, Texas -- Boy, we are marching backwards on the environment at a truly impressive pace. Between the Senate and the Bush administration, we are advancing to the rear, double time. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, fuel efficiency standards, toxic waste -- this is literally sickening stuff.

Last week, the Senate voted 62 to 38 to postpone, yet again, increasing the fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. According to he Sierra Club, the average fuel economy of cars sold last year was 20.4 miles per gallon, the lowest since 1980. The failed fuel efficiency proposal could have saved the country up to 1 million barrels of oil a day by 2016 -- as much as the United States currently imports from Iraq and Kuwait.

You will doubtlessly be less than amazed to learn that the auto industry spent heavily to defeat any improvement in fuel efficiency. According to Public Campaign -- a campaign finance reform group -- on average, the 62 senators who voted with the industry received $18,000 from auto companies. The 38 senators who wanted stronger standards got a measly $5,900. Since 1989, the auto companies have given $9.9 million to federal candidates and parties. I know, it's not new, but it does matter.

The EPA under Christi Todd Whitman is just not enforcing the law. She has put into effect new regulations that put off air controls for at least two more years. According to EPA's own figures, 80,000 major polluters -- each with the capacity to put 10 tons of toxic gas and particles into the air each year -- are doing little or nothing to reduce their emissions. This is not about tree-huggers and spotted owls, air pollution kills people.

Bush's choice to head EPA's clean air program is Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly a lawyer for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, among others. According to EarthJustice, Holmstead was also an adjunct scholar at Citizens for the Environment (what a name), an offspring of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which is funded by the usual right-wing suspects -- the Scaife family, and Koch, Olin and Bradley Foundations.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, CFE "labeled most environmental problems -- including acid rain, natural resource depletion and shrinking landfill space -- as myths." He also represented agribusiness in a case challenging the law to assess the health effects of pesticide exposure on children and to limit unreasonable health risks. Aren't you happy he's in charge of clean air?

Michael Dombeck, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, points out that forests are not only critical to the atmosphere but are also the key source of clean water. The undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, with responsibility for 156 national forests, is Mark Rey, who worked for 20 years for big timber trade associations. He vociferously opposes the National Forest Roadless Conservation policy, which would protect one-third of our forests from logging, mining and other destructive activities.

And here's a lovely item: Rey has defended clear-cutting as "compatible with rain forest ecology." He probably thinks a roadless area is one in need of roads.

Administrations come and administrations go, and little of what they do is permanent. Policies can be reversed, wars come to an end and new undersecretaries bloom in Washington. But if you're screw up the air, the land and the water, you can't undo it. Bush is now planning some major restructuring in the executive branch. Maybe he should consider putting the EPA under Tom Ridge at Homeland Security. That would make the country safer than leaving the environment to the Environmental "Protection Agency."

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.