Photo by Austen Hufford.

Today marks a symbolic vote in the Senate: Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is putting forward a Congressional Review Act resolution [PDF] that would stop the EPA’s impending standards on mercury and other toxic power plant emissions in their tracks.

I won’t rehearse all over again why the mercury rule — mandated by court order, more than a decade overdue — is such a big deal, or why further delaying it is a terrible idea, or how it fits into a comprehensive GOP plan to dismantle the system of U.S. environmental law, a plan relentlessly advanced by the most anti-environmental House in the history of Congress. Nor will I go on about how popular it is with the public. UPDATE: As Philip reported, and as expected, Inhofe’s resolution was defeated in the Senate, 53-46.

I just want to mock the Romney campaign for a minute.

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You see, Inhofe’s vote put pressure on Romney to take a stand on the mercury rule. It’s an awkward spot for Romney. As governor of Massachusetts he supported renewable energy and led a crusade against the state’s dirtiest coal plant over Clean Air Act violations. Here he is, pointing to it and saying, “that plant kills people” and “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people.”

He wasn’t alone. It was common then and remains common today for Northeastern governors, regardless of party, to be supportive of EPA protections. Most Republican senators from the Northeast plan to vote against Inhofe. Their citizens are the ones bearing the brunt of the harm from coal-plant poison.

Aaanyway … never mind all that. Today Romney is first and foremost a servant of a Republican Party, where power resides in Congress, with the far right, which has told him in no uncertain terms that all he needs are “enough working digits to handle a pen.” With the center of gravity on the right having shifted so far in a pro-pollution direction, Romney has Etch-A-Sketch’d on climate and clean air, as on so much else.

Now he’s come out explicitly against the mercury rule. Like I said, no big shock; this is now party orthodoxy. This statement from the campaign however, made me laugh out loud, or “LOL” as the kids are saying:

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President Obama cannot claim to support clean coal while imposing regulations that his EPA admits would prevent another coal plant from ever being built.

To paraphrase: “Obama cannot claim to support clean coal while passing rules saying coal has to be clean.” Uh … sure he can. In fact that seems exactly like what someone who supports clean coal would do: prohibit dirty coal! After all, nobody is going to build clean coal if it’s cheap and legal to build dirty coal instead. Why bother?

Obviously, EPA never “admitted” that mercury standards would stop new coal, or said anything of the sort, Inhofe’s hype-mongering notwithstanding. One EPA official was overheard saying it would be “tough” for new coal plants. And it will be! But why?

There’s no legal barrier to utilities building coal plants that meet modern pollution-control standards, including EPA’s new mercury and carbon dioxide standards. The problem — utilities know this, the coal industry knows this, everyone knows this — is that clean coal cannot compete with natural gas and wind. Coal’s competitive edge is that it’s allowed to be dirty. Once it loses that advantage, no one will want to build it.

The stampede away from coal is already underway and will continue whether or not new mercury rules are finalized. Meeting even the pollution standards already on the books renders coal generation unable to compete economically in today’s energy markets. The only reason 40 or so percent of U.S. electricity still comes from coal is that a bunch of plants that don’t meet those standards are still running.

You can support clean coal, but that means supporting a dramatically diminished role for coal in the U.S. energy system. Or you can support dirty coal and the maintenance or expansion of the coal industry’s current size. But you cannot have your cake and eat it too, no matter what sort of garbled rhetoric the truth-challenged Romney campaign coughs up.