One of President Bush's first acts was to convene a task force to produce a
national energy strategy. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the group met secretly
with hundreds of witnesses. It heard from few environmentalists, but many lobbyists
and executives from industries whose fortunes would be affected by any new policies.
Despite lawsuits, the White House has refused to divulge the names of those privileged
to get Mr. Cheney's ear. The results, however, have been plain as day: policies
that broadly favor industry — including big campaign contributors — at the expense
of the environment and public health.
That unfortunate bias was demonstrated
anew this week when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to drop investigations
into more than 140 power plants, refineries and other industrial sites suspected
of violating the Clean Air Act. The winner is industry; the loser, the public.
The administration had already weakened the cases' legal foundation: a provision
in the act that required companies to install up-to-date pollution controls whenever
they increased harmful emissions by making major upgrades to their plants. The
utilities had complained that the rule kept them from producing more power and
discouraged investments in energy efficiency. Though the companies produced no
convincing evidence, Mr. Cheney's task force swallowed the argument whole, and
in due course it forced Christie Whitman, then head of the E.P.A., to jettison
the rule in favor of a more permissive regime allowing companies to increase pollution
without paying for new controls.
The administration insists lamely that a handful
of cases in litigation will be pursued. It seems clear, however, that the many
investigations that have not reached litigation will be dropped altogether or
at best restarted under the new rules — rules so full of loopholes that it is
highly unlikely that anybody will ever be found to have violated them.
administration swore to Congress months ago that this would not happen, that all
the old investigations would be aggressively pursued under the old rules. So in
addition to another rollback of environmental law, we have here another depressing
example of official mendacity. Abandoning these cases is also deeply unfair to
the companies that have already installed pollution controls in a good-faith effort
to comply with the law.
As is so often the case these days, the burden of defending
the environment now falls to the states. Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney
general who has aggressively used the old rules to reduce pollution from power
plants, has joined other states in suing the E.P.A. for weakening the law. He
has also asked the E.P.A. to turn its files over to the states so they can pursue
violators on their own. Finally, some in Congress are calling for an investigation
into the administration's behavior. And why not? Congress has a right to be unhappy
with a regulatory and judicial retreat that undermines much of what the Clean
Air Act stands for.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company