Today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed setting federal limits on carbon emissions from new power plants, a move could spell the beginning of the end for conventional coal-fired power plants in the US. The new rules would effectively ban any new coal plants that don’t trap CO2 before it leaves their smokestacks. The historic announcement represents a major step towards moving past one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

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Under the EPA proposal, new power plants would be allowed to emit a maximum of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced.

“This is an important common-sense step towards tackling the ongoing threat of climate change,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, according to Bloomberg. “We build on where the industry is going and lock that trend in, which we believe is an important signal for investors.”

Because the rule only applies to newly-built coal plants, it probably won’t have much of an immediate impact. Because of the availability of cheap natural gas, power companies have been closing more coal plants than they’ve been building in recent years. As a result, coal currently accounts for just 40 percent of electricity generation in the US — the lowest level since 1978. Still, this represents a good safeguard against returning to coal if something should cause natural gas prices to spike, for example.

Environmentalists are hopeful that this isn’t the only measure the Obama administration plans to take to regulate coal-fired power plants. However, in her announcement today, Jackson told reporters that the EPA has “no plans to address existing plants.”

Photos by Flickr users Señor Codo and vxla