You know how skeptics argue that electric vehicles don’t make any sense because “you’re just transferring the pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack”? Heard that one? They have a point in some heavily coal-dependent states, but a minor one.

There’s actually not a whole lot of reliable information on the coal question when it comes to electric cars. The Electric Power Research Institute didn’t have any available figures, but after doodling on a notepad came up with an estimate that, even from a heavily coal-reliant grid, electric battery cars are 30 to 40 percent cleaner than an average gasoline car in terms of greenhouse gas production.

But that’s what's true today. In what is sure to be a controversial decision, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday (when half of official Washington had already left town for Christmas) said that it is putting into place sweeping greenhouse gas standards for both power plants and petroleum refineries. This is going to require a new back-of-the-envelope calculation, because coal plants are going to get cleaner (and thus electric vehicles will gain a further advantage).

The standards for power plants, which came following state and green group lawsuits demanding greenhouse regulation, will be proposed next July and enacted in May 2012. (The schedule for refineries is different.)

Now it’s obvious that the Obama administration isn’t going to pass a cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction plan through Congress — it couldn’t do that even in the current Congress, before the Republican mid-year deluge. Predictably, this unilateral decision is going to set off howling about both the timing and the end-run quality of the plan.

In a conference call, EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy was careful to deflect my question about there being any kind of carbon cap in this new plan, which uses the Clean Air Act as cover (remember, carbon dioxide is officially a pollutant) for what are called New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) that will “set the level of pollution new facilities may emit and address air pollution from existing facilities.”

Sounds kind of like a cap to me, but McCarthy said that the cap-and-trade approach “looks at how much greenhouse gas you emit from all sectors. This is very different: We’re looking at specific sectors and what they can achieve, then enacting a plan that will apply to emissions within that sector.”

Needless, to say, utilities and their allies in Congress aren’t going to see the distinction there. Matthew Wald of the New York Times asked during the conference call, “Is the Republican House going to let you do this?” And that’s the key question.

According to Scott Segal, an attorney for both utilities and refineries, “Today, the EPA commits the country to an unrealistic timetable for the regulation of global greenhouse gases…By singling out the energy sector, EPA puts the nation’s fragile economic recovery at risk and stifles job creation.”

Not surprising that they played the job card there, though neither refineries nor power plants are huge employers. Segal also said that hospitals are among the victims if energy prices go up, which is kind of ironic because power plant air pollution actually sends a lot of people to the hospital.

The EPA is already on a collision course with Texas, where the rabidly anti-environmental Gov. Rick Perry, a presidential aspirant, is refusing to go along with federal climate regulation plans. The governor’s office says that EPA greenhouse regulation “paints a big target on the backs of Texas agriculture and energy producers and the hundreds of thousands of Texans they employ,”

Also not surprising was the fact that greens are applauding the news:

  • Earthjustice: “The EPA has a legal duty to respond to the very real dangers of global warming pollution by setting strong limits on carbon pollution from power plants and refineries.”
  • Environment America: “For years, coal-fired power plants have been allowed to emit unlimited amounts of global warming pollution into our air, which is a major reason why coal-fired power plants are currently the largest single source of global warming pollution nationwide.”
  • NRDC: “A big step forward to protect America’s health and well-being.”
What’s the name of that movie again? "There Will be Blood," right? Well, there will be blood over this one. But in the end America’s power plants will be cleaner, and so will the well-to-wheels green performance of electric cars.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

With new standards, even electric cars running on coal power will be cleaner
Electric power plugged into our half-coal grid should get cleaner under a new EPA proposal. But, with Congress on the watch for end runs over its ban on cap and