AUSTIN, Texas -- Republicans for Clean Air, a group previously unknown to the Federal Elections Commission or anyone else in politics, is now running an ad in Tuesday's primary states claiming that Gov. George W. Bush passed laws that will reduce air pollution in Texas by more than a quarter million tons a year!

The mystery of "Republicans for Clean Air" was solved Friday when The New York Times revealed that Dallas billionaire and Bush pioneer Sam Wyly was fronting the money for this singularly hilarious example of what is called the "sham issue ad."

And just the other day I was noting that one loophole in Bush's campaign finance reform is that it doesn't address sham issue ads.

In the ad, Sen. John McCain's face is superimposed on a backdrop of smokestacks belching dark clouds, while a voice-over announces:

"Last year, John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air. New York Republicans care about clear air. So does Gov. Bush. He led one of the first states in America to clamp down on old coal-burning electric power plants. Bush clean-air laws will reduce air pollution more than a quarter million tons a year. That's like taking five million cars off the road. Gov. Bush: Leading so each day dawns brighter."

Excuse me, I think I have a banana in my ear.

OK, let's look at the facts.

Texas has very dirty air. According to the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation set up by NAFTA, we pollute more than any other state or Canadian province. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas is No. 1 in overall toxic releases, recognized carcinogens in the air, suspected carcinogens in the air, developmental toxins in the air, cancer risk and 10 other equally depressing categories.

This is not Bush's fault. The petrochemical complex on the Texas Gulf Coast, the dirty coal-fired electric plants and many other happy contributors to our dirty air have been around since Bush was a pup. The question is: What, if anything, has Bush as governor done about all this?

Our biggest single problem in air pollution is the "grandfathered polluters." When the Lege passed the Texas Clean Air Act in 1971, it exempted 850 heavily polluting plants that were already in existence -- in other words, it "grandfathered" them so they didn't have to obey the new law.

The exemption was intended to last only a few years, to give the old plants time to crank up to the new standards. But you know the Lege -- here we are, 29 years later with around 800 plants (a little attrition there) now producing nearly one-third of all the air pollution in the state. That's 905,669 tons a year out of the total 2.75 million tons from all sources of air pollution in Texas.

Over the years, environmental and public-interest groups worked to increase public awareness of the problem and gradually built enough political momentum to get something done, with help from many newspapers around the state.

The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (called "Trainwreck" because of its odd acronym -- TNRCC) is sort of the state's EPA, though no one has ever accused it of being a particularly alert watchdog.

In 1997, Bush's three appointees to Trainwreck, none of whom can be described by any stretch of the imagination as an environmentalist, decided that something had to be done. Bush's environmental director warned him that the commissioners were "moving too fast" and might "rashly seek legislation this session."

So Bush asked two oil company executives to outline a voluntary program allowing the grandfathered polluters to decide for themselves how much to cut their pollution. The oil execs summoned a meeting of two dozen industry reps at Exxon offices in Houston and presented them with the program.

In a now-famous memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, one executive wrote that "clearly the insiders from oil and gas believe that the governor's office will 'persuade' the TNRCC to accept what program is developed between the industry group and the governor's Office."

And they did. And two years later this joke of a program was enacted into law by a bill written by the general counsel for the Texas Chemical Council, who also lobbies for energy and utility companies. The bill was denounced by newspapers across the state.

The happy result is that of the 760 grandfathered plants now subject to the Bush voluntary compliance program, 73 have signed up to write plans to cut emissions; three have actually cut emissions; and five have permits or enforcement orders. Another 299 are located in non-attainment areas and are therefore ultimately subject to the EPA. That's according to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis of TNRCC numbers.

In a separate bill in 1999, 68 of the old grandfathered electric utility plants were cut out from the herd and are now covered separately -- a shrewd move made by Democratic Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas. He exacted pollution standards on the utilities by holding up the bill to deregulate the utilities in committee unless the companies agreed.

When they agreed, so did Bush, who later signed Wolens' bill and is apparently claiming credit for it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 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 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.