The most-discussed environmental news story of the week is undoubtedly Bruce Barcott’s “Changing All the Rules,” that ran in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, April 4. It’s a case study of the Bush administration’s approach to environmental law, centered on one obscure but powerful section of the U.S. Clean Air Act. Called “New Source Review,” the section covers whether and when old factories and power plants—especially the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the nation—must clean the toxins from their exhaust. To those who follow these matters, the story is depressingly familiar. It illustrates the formula—science mistated, polluter-contributors consulted, industry placated, public health sacrificed, and substantive change buried in regulatory jargon—that has been the current administration’s modus operandi since 2001. As political strategy, it’s rather brilliant. And, in a back-handed way, it’s testimony to the strength of environmental sentiment in the United States. The Bush administration cannot openly lower environmental standards, so it hides its actions behind a blizzard of technical language. The pattern of policy-making is also evident in other issues critical to the region: forests, fish and other endangered species, energy policy, water quality, and so on. (One other Northwest connection: Bruce Barcott is former books editor of the Seattle Weekly and the editor of the best anthology of Northwest writing yet assembled.)

(Correction on April 29, 2004: My original post stated that New Source Review was not terribly relevant in the Northwest states, because we have few coal-fired power plants. It is highly relevant here for other facilities—and for our two coal plants, at Centralia, Washington, and Boardman, Oregon. Thanks to Elizabeth Waddell of the National Park Service for the catch. -Alan Durning)