The U.S. Environmental Rejection, er, Protection Agency handed down yet another puzzling decision Wednesday.

It said California could not mandate emissions standards for new cars and trucks that are tougher than the federal ones.

Actually, blame for the decision shouldn't go to the entire EPA. It was made by EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson, who overruled the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.

Johnson's decision - obviously made under orders from the White House - also freezes 18 other states, including Pennsylvania, which either have or were set to enact "California" standards. Everyone, evidently, has to play by the rules of big, hairy Central Gov.

Isn't this supposed to be a conservative administration? And don't conservatives champion states' rights over central law?

The answer, of course, is that conservatives are conservatives only when it's to their advantage (much as it is with liberals). They will use federal power when it suits them and champion state power when it suits them.

The reasoning Johnson gave for his decision was so lame it aroused laughter. In effect: "Well, Congress just passed this nifty new energy bill, with swell new tailpipe standards for autos."

The energy bill did indeed enact new automotive standards, and these are tougher than those the White House or many Republicans in Congress cared to have. But the legislation signed into law Wednesday isn't exactly a paean to environmentalists.

Doesn't matter. The new energy law simply provided a convenient pretext for what Johnson knew he had to do all along.

It's simply not in this White House's nature to impose strong mandates aimed at global warming. That's why our country was such a drag at the recent Bali talks on climate change.

The White House also opposes differing auto emissions standards among the states because of the difficulty that would create for the manufacturers of cars and trucks.

It would be inconvenient, not to mention expensive, for automakers to make one line of cars for California, another for Colorado, and still another for New Jersey to meet those states' varying emissions standards.

But must the public suffer more auto exhaust just to make life easier for the makers of cars?

By Johnson's reasoning, there's no such thing as one state's environment. The ecology is something affecting all states. So there should be one set of auto emissions standards. And he would probably add: "

My

set."

But the country needs better standards than Central Gov wants. That peels down to the real center of the onion here. California enacted some of the smartest auto emissions standards in the nation. Other states, like Pennsylvania, want to follow suit because the standards make sense.

But if Central Gov allowed all the states to go California's way, it would soon drag the entire nation into . . . horrors . . . better, stricter environmental standards.

Can't have

that

, says Johnson.

Yes: Smart environmental and energy laws should balance as many rights and interests as possible, including those of car buyers, car makers, big power, alternative power, babes in arms, and flowers in the field.

But if there was ever an achingly obvious instance of a recalcitrant ideological posse digging in against better ideas, this moment is it.

The Bush administration could be the great U.S. champion of the environment, conservers of what most cries out to be conserved. It's not. Decisions like Johnson's on auto-emission rules show why.