The EPA doesn’t want you inhaling this.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), a first-of-its-kind baseline regulating the emission of mercury (and, as you might have guessed, other airborne toxics) from coal- and oil-fueled power plants. Today, the Senate, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), will vote on blocking the regulation from ever taking effect. Thanks, Senate!

Obviously, everyone you know will be talking about this. Americans are obsessed with the intricacies of governmental regulation and the procedures by which they are overturned. So to ensure that you’re the life of any party, we’ve put together this overview.

What is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard?

The rule itself is straightforward. By reducing — not eliminating — mercury, sulfur dioxides, and particulate matter emissions, the EPA estimates that between 4,000 and 11,000 premature deaths can be prevented each year. That includes 4,700 heart attacks avoided, and 130,000 asthma attacks. The total economic benefits from this improved health are measured at between $37 billion and $90 billion annually.

The rule was originally proposed by the Bush EPA, but an appeals court determined that its scope was insufficiently broad. Last March, the EPA proposed a revised rule; last winter, they issued a final standard.

Power plants, loath to spend the money that it takes to keep babies from breathing in that mercury, object that MATS will be a “job killer.” (As they do for every proposed improvement.) The New York Times addressed that issue in an editorial in favor of the new rule:

It is true that the mercury rule, and other clean air regulations, will require substantial upgrades in older, coal-burning power plants and force others to close down. The power companies have had years to prepare. In addition to reducing emissions of global warming gases and ground-level pollutants, the upgrades are expected to create as many as 45,000 temporary construction jobs over the next five years and possibly 8,000 permanent jobs.

Opponents also suggest that MATS will negatively impact the nation’s electrical supply. It won’t. Really [PDF]. (Oh, but climate change probably will.)

What is the Senate voting on?

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is expected to bring his Congressional Review Act to a vote this week. A simple majority in favor of the resolution would not only overturn MATS, but also block the EPA from passing similar standards in the future.

The Miami Herald‘s editorial in favor of MATS outlines Inhofe’s plan: He wants to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to halt implementation and stymie future efforts to curb pollution. (Pollution that forces people to take 540,000 sick days each year. Job killer!)

You can thank Newt Gingrich for the CRA. Passed as part of the Contract With America after the 1996 elections, the CRA “imposes new restraints on the so-called ‘independent’ Agencies,” as the Harvard Law Review notes [PDF] — though not in the realm of blocking regulation. Congress has always had that power. In effect, the CRA is like a de facto censure, a statement that “we don’t like what you’re doing.” The restraints the Harvard Law Review refers to are more subtle and less relevant to our discussion. Feel free to read the interesting/long paper. Extra credit will be awarded.

Will Congress overturn the MATS rule?

If the House had its way, the EPA would be razed and turned into an oil field, presence of oil notwithstanding. (Don’t believe me? Here’s an overview of the House of Representatives’ anti-environment track record [PDF], including opposition to MATS.)

So it comes down to the Senate. Reports indicate that the Inhofe has 29 other senators prepared to vote with him. The figure is good news for Inhofe, as the CRA stipulates that measures with at least 30 supporters can skip the committee process. In a Democrat-controlled Senate, that’s important.

But 30, mathematics indicates, is less than 50. And, further, it’s less than 60 — the de facto number at which anything gets done in the Senate these days. So it seems improbable that the opposition will pass. Even with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on  Inhofe’s side, Democrats hold a majority of Senate votes.

In other words: sorry America. Looks like you’ll have to work those extra 540,000 days a year instead of spending them wheezing and/or dying. That darn nanny state strikes again.

Update: Elle MacPherson supports the EPA on this, which basically settles the issue.

Update: The Senate this morning rejected Inhofe’s CRA by a vote of 53-46. From The Hill:

Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Warner (Va.), and Jim Webb (Va.) were the five senators voting for Inhofe’s resolution. Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Scott Brown (Mass.), and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) joined Democrats in opposing the resolution.