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WASHINGTON — Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Monday signed a plan to weaken regulation of coal-fired power plants, advancing a proposal that the coal industry has hailed as an end to burdensome regulation and environmentalists have criticized as a retreat in the battle to address climate change.
Mr. Wheeler’s signature officially sets in motion one of the Trump Administration’s most significant rollbacks yet of former President Barack Obama’s climate change legacy, alongside an earlier decision to let automobiles pollute more. A senior E.P.A. official confirmed the signing late Monday.
The agency is expected on Tuesday to discuss the details of its proposal, which it is calling the Affordable Clean Energy rule, to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was designed to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The long-anticipated Trump administration overhaul of those rules is likely to set the stage for years of legal clashes.
President Trump is expected to head to West Virginia coal country, where in May 2016 that he donned a coal miner’s helmet and vowed to strip away regulations on the industry, on Tuesday and is likely to use the moment to tell supporters that he is following through on that promise.
The new plan would all but erase Mr. Obama’s efforts to impose pollution controls on planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants in an effort to transition toward cleaner energy sources like wind and solar power. One of the proposal’s most significant changes would give authority to states to decide how much to cut emissions, while restricting what states can do to encourage greater efficiency and other modifications at coal plants.
When the rule is submitted into the federal register on Tuesday the public will have 60 days to submit comments before it is finalized.
Trump administration officials have long said that the Clean Power Plan exceeded the federal government’s authority. They have said that the new plan operates within the bounds of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which obliges the government to design a way to cut carbon emissions.
Coal-industry leaders agreed, and have offered praise.
“The proposed rule appears to provide electric cooperatives with a more achievable plan,” said Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a powerful utility trade group whose members get more than 40 percent of their energy from coal-fired generation.
Still, Mr. Matheson said, his member co-ops are already moving away from coal in response to economic reality: Other fuels have become more cost-effective. “The electric cooperative fuel mix for providing electricity is changing, with increased investments in natural gas and renewables,” he said.
Indeed, experts said it was unlikely that the new rule would reverse the decline of America’s coal industry. More than 200 coal plants have retired since 2010, mainly because of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. And dozens of additional retirements have already been announced for the coming years.
At the same time, the new rule is expected to have significant implications for aging coal-fired plants across the country, offering incentives to keep them running longer or enabling them to avoid installing modern pollution controls. The end result, critics of the Trump plan said, would be a rise in not just the heat-trapping gases that are warming the planet but a potential rise in soot and other particulate matter that contribute to health problems such as asthma or pulmonary disease.
“This egregious climate-denial plan fails to protect the American people from the serious risks of climate change,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and “could send clean energy jobs to China.” The plan, he added, “goes even further and allows polluters to increase the amount of smog and soot they emit into the air our children breathe.”
The agency said that the reductions under its proposal would be “comparable” to the Obama rule but “achieved in a legal and reasonable manner.” While the Clean Power Plan aimed to cut carbon emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the Trump plan sets no national benchmark.
By comparison, the Trump plan will cut carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 0.7 to 1.5 percent by 2030.
The United States is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. The Clean Power Plan was intended to be the cornerstone of America’s pledge under the Paris Agreement on climate change, under which nearly 200 nations vowed voluntary measures to rein in emissions.
Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under Mr. Obama, said that the Trump proposal “makes a false promise that we can actually return to coal as our major and compelling source for energy production, which is simply not the case,” she said. “This kind of signal setting does absolutely nothing to maintain the United States leadership.”
The Clean Power Plan was finalized in 2015 but 29 states and the coal industry sued to stop the plan, arguing the federal government had exceeded its authority to regulate emissions. The United States Supreme Court stayed the rule and it never went into effect.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has rolled back a number of his predecessor’s key climate change regulations, most recently freezing fuel efficiency requirements for the nation’s cars and trucks. In recent weeks he has harkened back to his days on the campaign trail, contrasting his embrace of coal miners with the position of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who said in a 2016 campaign appearance in West Virginia, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Mrs. Clinton later apologized for her comment.
“You remember Hillary with the coal, right, sitting with the miners at the table? Remember? That wasn’t so good for her,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign fund-raiser last week.