Hot Air:

So there you are, a pollutant-spewing refinery, nimbly dodging Environmental Protection Agency regulators as you deliver record earnings to shareholders. Along with your comrades, you've donated $25.5 million to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle. Things are going smoothly. Your man Bush is in the White House, he's drummed up an "energy crisis" that he says requires him to go easy on you; maybe he's even given you a nickname. Then, all of a sudden, you hear that four energy companies have just settled clean air lawsuits -- on terms favorable to the government! What's more, Attorney General John Ashcroft suddenly sounds like he's been possessed by Ralph Nader: "Enforcing environmental law is a top priority for the Justice Department," Ashcroft says, to your amazement. "I look forward to protecting our natural resources and helping ensure that companies are in compliance with the law." If he means what he says, you're in big trouble. Do you:

A) Get Dick Cheney on the phone and give him a real reason for heart trouble?

B) Write a check to the "John Breaux in 2004" campaign and cool your heels for four years?


C) Chuckle as you watch the press dutifully report this bit of puffery, secure in the knowledge that there's no way in hell the Bush Administration is going to come down on you?

If you chose C, congratulations! Your campaign contributions are paying off handsomely. Late last month, amid the hoopla surrounding Cheney's ticker trouble, collapsing support for the faith-based initiative, and Bush's sagging poll numbers, an important bit of business got overlooked. The Bush Administration, after striking a get-tough pose on environmental regulation, quietly backed down, halting one of the largest environmental investigations in U.S. history. Dick Cheney's energy task force called for a review of the groundbreaking investigation; the recent decision confirms environmentalists' worst fears.

At issue was a probe involving more than 100 energy and oil companies accused of violating the Clean Air Act. For years, a loophole has existed that lets companies continue to use equipment that pollutes. In theory, they're supposed to bring themselves into compliance when they expand or make major repairs, creating a new source of pollution (the suspended law is known as "new source review"). Under Clinton, the EPA brought suit against dozens of such companies who'd tried to claim that improvements they'd made were minor ones and therefore not subject to the law. While several companies had settled suits by paying a steep fine and agreeing to improve pollution control measures (including a number in the nascent days of the Bush Administration), it's unlikely that any more will follow.

The Administration has suspended the regulation while it examines the "legal soundness" of the law. You don't have to be Socrates to piece together what's happening. Since the administration isn't reviewing the laws with an eye toward making them tougher, chances are the regulations are done for. A spokesman for one company nearing a settlement told The Wall Street Journal that government lawyers said, "they would not put pressure on us to sign" a settlement. Not surprisingly, experts don't expect anyone else to either, not until the "new" interpretation of clean air laws is in effect. As Lois Schiffer, who headed the Justice Department's environmental and natural resources section under Clinton, put it to the Journal, "It's sort of like going to the White House to get your parking tickets fixed." Or it would be, anyway, if your parking problems managed to diminish the country's air quality.