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Obama administration targets coal with controversial emissions regulation

The Obama administration took aim at the coal industry on Monday by mandating a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions at fossil fuel-burning power plants by 2030 -- despite claims the regulation will cost nearly a quarter-million jobs a year and force plants across the country to close. 

The controversial regulation, which some lawmakers already are trying to block, is one of the most sweeping efforts to tackle global warming by this or any other administration. 

The 645-page plan, expected to be finalized next year, is a centerpiece of President Obama's climate change agenda, and a step that the administration hopes will get other countries to act when negotiations on a new international treaty resume next year. 

"We have a moral obligation to act," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, in announcing the plan Monday morning. 

While the proposed regulation drew praise from environmental groups, the coal industry and coal-state lawmakers were immediately wary. Democratic West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall announced he would introduce legislation, along with Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to stop the EPA plan. 

"We will introduce bipartisan legislation that will prevent these disastrous new rules from wreaking havoc on our economy in West Virginia," Rahall said in a statement. 

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said he's "certain that it will be very bad news for states like Kentucky who mine and use coal to create electricity." 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky, called it a "dagger in the heart of the American middle class" -- and predicted higher power costs and less reliable energy as a result. McConnell's general election opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, also spoke out against the plan. 

The draft regulation sidesteps Congress, where Obama's Democratic allies have failed to pass a so-called "cap-and-trade" plan to limit such emissions. 

Under the plan, carbon emissions would be reduced 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. The proposal sets off a complex regulatory process in which the 50 states will each determine how to meet customized targets set by the EPA. 

States could have until 2017 to submit a plan to cut power plant pollution, and 2018 if they join with other states to tackle the problem, according to the EPA's proposal. 

EPA data shows that the nation's power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005. But with coal-fired power plants already beleaguered by cheap natural gas prices and other environmental regulations, experts said reaching the targets won't be easy. The EPA is expected to offer a range of options to states to meet targets that will be based on where they get their electricity and how much carbon dioxide they emit in the process. 

While some states will be allowed to emit more and others less, overall the reduction will be 30 percent nationwide. 

The options include making power plants more efficient, reducing the frequency at which coal-fired power plants supply power to the grid, and investing in more renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. They also can set up pollution-trading markets as some states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions.

If a state refuses to create a plan, the EPA can make its own. 

The Obama administration claimed the changes would produce jobs, cut electricity bills and save thousands of lives thanks to cleaner air. 

But critics disputed the estimates. 

"Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has adopted a 'my way or the highway' approach, and that explains why he's shoving these EPA regulations down our throat," Republican Party Chairman  Reince Priebus said in a statement. "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has found that each year this regulation will kill 224,000 jobs and force energy rates to skyrocket, so it's no wonder President Obama is circumventing Congress to implement his latest job-killing regulation."

Hundreds of coal-burning plants will have to comply, which has resulted in strong opposition from the energy industry, big business and coal-state Democrats and Republicans, who argue Obama’s green-energy agenda is tantamount to a “war on coal.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues that the rule will kill jobs and close power plants across the country.

The group released a study that finds the rule will result in the loss of 224,000 jobs every year through 2030 and impose $50 billion in annual costs.

Without waiting to see what Obama proposes, governors in Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia have already signed laws directing their environmental agencies to develop their own carbon-emission plans. Similar measures recently passed in Missouri and are pending in the Louisiana and Ohio legislatures.

On Saturday, Obama tried to bolster public support for the new rule by arguing that carbon-dioxide emissions are a national health crisis -- beyond hurting the economy and causing global warming.

“We don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children,” Obama said in his weekly address. “As president and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” 

Many anticipate the rule change will increase electricity prices, considering the United States relies on coal for 40 percent of its electricity. However, the plants also are the country’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Many of the Democrats who are raising concerns represent coal-producing states and face tough 2014 reelection bids.

Among them is West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, whose state gets 96 percent of its power from coal. Rahall said Thursday that he didn't have specific details about the rule, but "from everything we know we can be sure of this: It will be bad for jobs."

Obama is being forced to use the 1970s-era old Clean Air Act, after failing during his first term to get Congress to pass a law. The law has long been used to regulate pollutants like soot, mercury and lead, but has only recently been applied to greenhouse gases.

"There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. "We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It's not smart, it's not safe, and it doesn't make sense."

The rule also will prescribe technological fixes or equipment to be placed on existing plants and require new ones to capture some of their carbon dioxide and bury it underground.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.