Houstonians are justifiably proud of our vibrant energy industry, one of the mighty engines of the area's economy.

But we need also to be mindful that Houston and its eight-county environs, with more than 260 oil refineries, chemical plants and other large industrial facilities, make up one of the worst air-polluting areas in the country. And while we've made great strides in recent years, we still have a long way to go to rid the air we all breathe of health-threatening, even life-threatening, toxic emissions.

So it is distressing to see that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose mission it is to achieve that goal, too often sides with the polluters. Most recently, TCEQ has come to the defense of the area's industrial facilities - now faced with tens of millions of dollars in fines for failing to meet federal clean-air standards - with a novel idea for dodging those fines. The commission is asking the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to waive the fines, and to consider the fees and taxes it already charges motorists and equipment operators as a substitute, since those monies already support smog-fighting programs. It says it would not increase those fees and taxes, nor would it demand any new pollution controls from industrial companies.

Motor vehicles are indeed responsible for much of our air pollution: As reported last Saturday by the Chronicle's Matthew Tresaugue, ("State wants drivers to foot pollution bill," Page 1), local cars, trucks, trains and other vehicles produce about half the area's nitrogen oxides, while industrial sources account for 40 percent. But those industrial facilities produce nearly double the amount of the most dangerous pollutants than vehicles produce. And that's using current measures - measures that air experts agree tend to grossly undercount certain dangerous pollutants.

As reported by Tresaugue on the Chronicle's front page Monday ("Effort could clear air on pollution miscount") next spring the University of Houston will receive an eagerly anticipated shipment of sophisticated air-pollution measuring tools from Sweden, part of a trans-Atlantic collaboration of engineers and scientists to better gauge the extent of the undercount.

These undercounted pollutants, called volatile organic compounds, are a major contributor to poisonous air, particularly in the Houston area, with its heavy concentration of chemical plants.

Studies consistently show that when advanced measuring technology is used, emissions are discovered to be much higher than is shown on reports to the government. Houston area measurements in the last decade have all shown emissions that dwarfed official counts.

So while EPA acceptance of the proposal would be a most attractive deal - a gift - for industrial facilities, it's not much comfort for the rest of us, particularly in light of the probability that our pollution problems are far worse than currently reported. Even by current standards, these facilities are the major source of the most dangerous pollutants, and TCEQ should impose the fines they have incurred.