That environmental politics in the US has degenerated into a righteousness contest is made clear by a group festering in the Republican Party.

Called Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) America, the group aims to prove that, by golly, Republicans care about the environment.

Was that ever a question?

REP America epitomizes the polarization that makes reasonable discussion about the environment difficult.

"Unfortunately," declares a statement of the group's purpose, "some Republicans have made it their goal to undo the laws that have cleaned up our air and water, improved our health and the quality of our lives, preserved our great natural heritage, and prevented the extinction of many native species, including our national symbol, the bald eagle."

This is the classic trap of environmental extremists. You're either for them, or you're against them. If you're for them, you're righteous. If you're against them, you're evil.

The phony morality has given environmentalism a status dangerously close to that of a national religion.

And it makes apostles expect no challenge when they say preposterous things. If you're for them, after all, you believe them.

Democratic politics is supposed to squeeze out this type of thing.

REP America's characterization of Republicans on environmentalism is just false. If there truly are party members eager to undo environmental laws, they don't exist in numbers sufficient to do anything about it.

Plenty of Republicans, however, do want to improve environmental laws and regulations-many of which are needlessly strict, obsolete, or otherwise counterproductive.

To some groups-REP America apparently among them-environmental laws and regulations become holy writ once they go on the books. To tamper with them is to commit heresy-or, to use a pet phrase, "turn back the clock" on environmental progress.

The cagey administration of former President Bill Clinton abused that mindset in its waning days. The Environmental Protection Agency went on a regulatory rampage that has refiners and other groups wondering how to conduct business when the new rules take effect.

When the administration of current President George W. Bush so much as hints at making needed and altogether reasonable adjustments, extremists condemn it for trying to undo progress.

For a group within Bush's own party to take part in such nonsense is-well, democracy. Environmental silliness doesn't confine itself to one party or the other.

In fact, REP America sounds like former Vice-Pres. Al Gore in this excerpt from its energy policy: "We endorse efforts to reduce America's dependence on oil and to find substitutes for present oil intensive technologies, such as internal combustion engines."

Of course, it also was democracy when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont earlier this year abandoned the Republican Party and declared himself independent, giving control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Last year, REP America honored Jeffords as its Environmental Legislator of the Year.

Maybe next it will invite Gore to make his political comeback as a Republican.

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