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In a rule that could discourage reliance on coal for energy, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday proposed the first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

The proposal would “move our nation into an era of American energy that is cleaner and cheaper,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a conference call with reporters.

Opponents say the rule would make it almost impossible to build new coal-fired power plants and could cause some plants to close. “Unfortunately, the EPA continues to ignore the real impact their rules will have on American families and businesses by driving up energy prices and destroying jobs,” the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said in a statement.

The rule is the result of a long process that wound through the U.S. Supreme Court. Five years ago, the court decreed that the EPA had authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Two years later, the agency formally found that emissions of such gases contributed to climate change and threatened public health.

Currently there are no national limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and the proposal would affect only new power plants, exempting those already in existence.

This January, the EPA for the first time released data on emissions of greenhouse gases at specific facilities. Power plants were by far the largest source.

Jackson said the proposal is in line with what the industry is already doing — shifting toward cheap natural gas being produced domestically. A boom has driven down natural gas prices, but Jackson said the agency had taken into account what might happen if those prices eventually rise. “The price of natural gas has to rise dramatically … for the economics of this rule — which are very, very good — to change,” she said.

The rule still must go through a public comment period and additional reviews. Jackson said she didn’t know when it would be finalized or whether it would be finished before the 2012 presidential election.

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