SMOG AND MIRRORS

SYNOPSIS: Bush's Cali energy solutions amount to breathtaking political arrogance.

A couple of weeks ago, in one of his first statements about the California energy crisis, George W. Bush placed the blame squarely on pollution controls: "If there's any environmental regulations preventing California from having a 100 percent max output at their plants as I understand may be then we need to relax those standards." But his assertion was swiftly contradicted not just by environmentalists and California officials, but by the energy industry. A spokesman for Houston- based Reliant Energy, which operates four Southern California plants, told The Los Angeles Times that assertions that environmental regulations were holding back power production were "absolutely false."

Nor, apparently, did environmental regulations play much of a role in California's failure to build new plants in the years since deregulation. In fact, environmentalists generally favored deregulation, because they thought it would lead to the construction of new plants, which would be gas-fired and hence cleaner than the coal-fired plants that still supply much of the state's power. Nimbyism the objections of people who didn't want a plant near them was more of a factor, but that's a different issue, and one that is quickly being resolved.

And yet the Bush administration has continued to push the idea that allowing more smog is the way out of the crisis. What exactly is going on here?

A cynic might suggest that this is all about payback to the companies that bankrolled Mr. Bush's campaign. But in the case of California smog, there isn't any direct payback. The only California power plant that has actually been kept offline by air quality rules belongs not to a Texas company but to the city of Glendale.

Now of course the administration is trying to use California's woes to sell its plan to drill for oil in the Arctic tundra a plan that, if you do the arithmetic ("No fuzzy math!" roared the crowd), turns out to be virtually irrelevant to our current energy problems. At best, it might add a few percent to the nation's oil supply a decade or more from now. But the administration's enthusiasm for that plan also poses something of a puzzle. It is, after all, expensive to find and extract oil from the Arctic, even if you play fast and loose with the environment; so the windfall to oil companies won't be all that large. Oil industry service companies, like Dick Cheney's former employer Halliburton, will reap some immediate benefits; but it's still hard to see why this should be at the top of the agenda.

To understand the enthusiasm of the administration for all things dirty, I believe, you need to see it as something that goes beyond simple calculations of cost and benefit. What it's really about is political momentum about eliminating Mr. Bush's legitimacy gap by winning a series of striking victories. In effect, his advisers hope that by repeatedly rolling over the moderates they can make people forget that the other guy actually got more votes. The environment, in particular, becomes a target precisely because the other side wants to protect it. Think of it as an attempt to create the illusion of a mandate using smog and mirrors.

Will this strategy work? As Jacob Weisberg recently noted in Slate, during the last few weeks of the campaign Mr. Bush's advisers tried a similar strategy, hoping to use the appearance of inevitability to convert his poll lead into a landslide. Instead, he lost the popular vote and came within a butterfly ballot of losing the electoral vote. But now he's in Washington, where it may be easier to turn perception into reality.

Whether or not the strategy is smart, however, its consequences will be far-reaching. Alaska is only the beginning; the man to watch next is Joe Barton, the Texas congressman who heads the House Commerce Committee's new subcommittee on energy and air quality. (Air quality was formerly the domain of the subcommittee on health and environment.) Coming soon, we can be sure, is a drive to gut as much as possible of the Clean Air Act.

It may seem bizarre that anti- environmentalism could become a goal in itself, that politicians might seek to despoil the environment not even for the sake of profit but merely to prove a point. But we're living in bizarre times; as they say, get over it.

Originally published in The New York Times, 1.31.01