By Humeyra Pamuk and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday proposed to roll back an Obama-era rule requiring new U.S. coal plants to slash carbon emissions, a move that could crack open the door in coming years for new plants fired by the fossil fuel.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acting administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the proposal, which will allow new coal plants to emit up to 1,900 pounds (862 kg) of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity.
The proposal, which is sure to be challenged by lawsuits from environmental groups, would replace the current limit of 1,400 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour.
"We are rescinding unfair burdens, levelling the playing field," Wheeler said at a news conference in Washington. He spoke alongside Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, a long-time opponent of former President Barack Obama's limits on carbon emissions.
Under the existing rule, new coal plants would have to burn some natural gas, which emits less carbon, or install carbon capture equipment or highly efficient technology that is not yet commercially available.
The U.S. government lists only two major coal plants being planned over the next four years, as the industry has been discouraged by plentiful and less-expensive natural gas. That could change as President Donald Trump rolls back rules meant to curb emissions linked to global warming.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, applauded the EPA's proposal, saying it would help families who work in the coal industry in his state of Kentucky. "Coal deserves a level playing field, and that's what this White House is trying to accomplish," McConnell said.
Myron Ebell, who led Trump's EPA transition team last year, said Trump's policies could allow new coal plants to be built in the next five, 10 or 15 years.
The administration says coal plants can be made to burn coal far more efficiently. But high costs have made them uneconomic. The regulatory roll-back comes ahead of annual U.N. climate talks in Poland next week, where White House officials plan a panel on coal technology.
It was unclear whether the proposal can withstand lawsuits. Jay Duffy, a legal associate at Clean Air Task Force, said the higher carbon emissions limit would not satisfy federal clean air law requirements for the best available emissions technology.
While the carbon capture equipment the Obama rule requires is technologically feasible, it is expensive.
But Duffy said Obama's rule would eventually drive down costs.
"If Trump is really interested in supporting coal miners, what he should be looking at is supporting and advancing carbon capture," said Duffy. In a future where rules on carbon constraints are likely, "that's the only way coal survives," he said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by David Gregorio and Rosalba O'Brien)