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Obama to unveil tougher climate change plan

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U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he steps off of Marine One as he returns from Camp David to the White House in Washington August 2, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will unveil on Monday the final version of his plan to tackle greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants, kicking off what is expected to be a tumultuous legal battle between federal environmental regulators and coal industry supporters.

The White House said its revised Clean Power Plan will increase the required cuts in carbon emissions from the power sector, demanding they be slashed 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The administration’s draft regulation, released a year ago, had required cuts of 30 percent.

The regulation will also encourage an aggressive shift toward renewable energy away from coal-fired electricity, pushing utilities to invest even more heavily in wind and solar energy.

Industry groups and some lawmakers from states that have relied on coal-based energy have vowed to challenge the new requirements in the courts and through Congressional maneuvers, accusing the administration of a regulatory assault that will drive up energy prices.

The National Mining Association said on Sunday it will seek to block the plan in federal court. “These [requirements] will burden Americans with increasingly high-costs for an essential service and a less reliable electric grid for delivering it,” said Hal Quinn, president of the NMA.

Critics are expected to argue that lower-income Americans will bear the heaviest burden of compliance.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents co-ops that deliver energy to poor rural communities, said it projects the Clean Power Plan will raise electricity prices by at least 10 percent, a rise that would be disproportionately felt by “the country’s most vulnerable populations.”

The administration has rejected that characterization and says the plan is intended to accelerate a transition toward producing more electricity from renewable fuels.

The White House said release of the plan was “the starting gun for an all-out climate push” by the president and his cabinet.

“My administration will release the final version of America’s Clean Power Plan, the biggest, most important step we have ever taken to combat climate change,” Obama said in a video posted online by the White House.

He said there have been no federal limits to date on carbon pollution from power plants, the biggest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

If implemented, coal’s share of electric generation in the U.S. will fall to 27 percent by 2030, slightly less than the original proposal which estimated it would account for 30 percent, Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy told reporters Sunday.

Coal accounted for 39 percent of electricity in 2014, according to the Department of Energy.

Natural gas’ 30 percent share of U.S. electricity generation would remain largely the same in 2030 while renewable energy would account for 28 percent, up from the 22 percent initially envisioned in the proposed rule.

The final rule avoids what the White House called an “early rush to gas” away from coal and encouraged earlier adoption by states of renewable power.

States will also be able to get credit for nuclear energy plants that are under construction, as well as for upgrading plants and preserving those at risk of early retirement, McCarthy said.

Nuclear currently provides around 20 percent of the U.S. energy mix.

‘CUTTING BILLS’

The administration also made changes to the final rule in order to defuse claims that the energy landscape was being re-ordered on the backs of the poor.

The revised rule contains two new measures the administration said will “cut energy bills for low-income families” and drive down renewable energy technology costs.

It will create a Clean Energy Incentive Program to reward states that take early action to deploy renewable energy projects before the regulation takes effect in 2022.

And it will reward states that invest in energy-efficiency projects in low-income communities in 2020 and 2021.

The EPA said it has responded to concerns of utilities and some states that the regulation could lead to energy shortages. The agency created a feature called a “reliability safety valve” in the final rule, which would allow states to get a temporary waiver if the closure of coal plants would disrupt the steady delivery of electricity.

“I would never accept a scenario where affordability or reliability came into question,” McCarthy said.

The Clean Power Plan is a vital component of meeting the U.S. pledge on emissions cuts for negotiations on a global climate change agreement that will be held in Paris at the end of this year.

Washington has promised to slash greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Brian Deese, a senior climate change advisor to Obama, told reporters the tougher climate rule will “enhance” the ability of the United States to meet its Paris target.

For now, however, the battle over the plan’s fate is a domestic affair.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Sunday the rule “will throw countless people out of work, and increases everyone’s energy prices.”

But Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who is trying to use the climate issue as a wedge against Republican candidates, praised Obama’s plan and said “I’d defend it.”

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