updated 12/10/2008 5:54:16 PM ET 2008-12-10T22:54:16

Six weeks before leaving office, the Bush administration is giving up on an eight-year effort to ease restrictions on pollution from coal-burning power plants, a key plank of its original energy agenda and one that put the president at odds with environmentalists his entire tenure in the White House.

President George W. Bush had hoped to make both changes to air pollution regulations final before leaving office on Jan. 20. In the midst of a coal-fired power plant construction boom, the rules would have made it easier for energy companies to expand existing facilities and to erect new power plants in areas of the country that meet air quality standards.

But the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday conceded that it didn't have enough time to complete the rules changes, which were undermined by a federal court decision earlier this year that scrapped a signature component of Bush's clean air policies.

The EPA, in a statement, said that it "will continue to advocate for the important health benefits" the initiatives would have achieved.

Environmentalists, however, have questioned that contention and said the decision would leave intact for the incoming Obama administration the strongest tools under the law for dealing with power plant pollution.

"It's stunning. This is the most high profile prize sought by the utility industry," said John Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It would have entangled the incoming administration up in a new rulemaking process while causing harm in many parts of the country."

The proposal would have changed how existing coal-fired power plants calculate emissions increases to determine whether they need to install pollution control equipment. The Bush administration wanted to base the calculation on an hourly rate, rather than an annual average.

Environmentalists and governors of Northeastern states said such a change would have resulted in more of the pollution that causes acid rain and smog problems in the region.

The second rule would have made easier for power plants to be built in areas with some of the cleanest air in the country by changing how states, the EPA and others assess how the new source would affect air quality. That proposal was opposed by the National Park Service and some the agency's own regional air quality experts.

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