A new plan for deep cuts in carbon emissions from US power plants is designed to help counteract climate change and reduce health risks but could also lead to more job cuts in the beleaguered coal industry.

The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council recently issued the proposal that would use existing technologies to cut generators’ carbon pollution by 26 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025, also reducing emissions of other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

While costing $4 billion in 2020, the reductions would save between $25 and $60 billion in avoided illnesses and slowed climate change; save 3,600 lives, prevent some 23,000 asthma attacks, and save more than 1 million lost work days, the NRDC said.

The carbon reductions would be achieved by EPA enforcement of section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which covers existing power plants, and would set state-specific emission rates through a flexible compliance framework that enable plant owners and states to reduce emissions through cost-effective means.

First reaction from power generators ranged from a cautious welcome to a warning that the plan would lead to further job losses among coal-fired generators.

NextEra Energy, a Florida-based generator with 41,000 MW of capacity that includes wind and solar, called the NRDC plan a “good starting point” for discussions on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but said federal legislation would be better.

“Comprehensive legislation by Congress would be the most effective method to address greenhouse gas emissions,” NextEra said in a statement. “Should the EPA move forward with regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, our company believes the NRDC proposal represents a good starting point for further discussions.”

Doug Biden, president of the Pennsylvania-based Electric Power Generation Association, representing 10 companies producing 150 MW of generation – about 40 percent of which is coal-fired – said he had not seen the NRD plan.

Comprehensive legislation by Congress would be the most effective method to address greenhouse gas emissions,”

But he warned that any program that forced existing plants to cut carbon emissions may require an act of Congress, and that’s unlikely to win the necessary support from lawmakers because of widespread public opposition to the already-sharp reduction in the use of coal for power generation.

“Every fourth lawn in places like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky has a sign out saying ‘stop the war on coal,’ ” Biden said. “To be talking now about more regulation, I just don’t see a majority of Congress being receptive to that.”

Stepping up the pressure on coal-fired plants to cut emissions would lead to further job losses that are already outstripping those created by the burgeoning natural gas industry, Biden said.

If implemented, the plan would require power plants, which generate about 40 percent of total US carbon emissions, to improve combustion efficiency, burn cleaner fuels, or install carbon capture and storage technology.

The program would seek to shift overall generation away from high-emissions plants to lower-emitting plants that use natural gas, wind or solar that would earn credits that other plants could use.

State energy-efficiency programs could earn credits for avoiding power generation and its pollution, allowing generators to purchase the credits to use toward their emissions targets.

“We are overturning the conventional wisdom that reducing carbon pollution through the Clean Air Act would be ineffective and expensive,” said Dan Lashof, NRDC’s director of Climate and Clean Air programs. “We show that the EPA can work with states and power companies to make large pollution reductions by setting system-wide standards…and by giving power companies and states the freedom to choose the most cost-saving means of compliance.”

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said the agency had not immediately reviewed the plan but is committed to working on reducing the effects of climate change which she said is largely attributable to human activities.

“We will continue to pursue opportunities to build on our success to date through commonsense policies that create jobs, enhance security and reduce carbon pollution,” Johnson wrote in an email.