ESTEVAN, Sask. - Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent has outlined proposed regulations for coal-fired electricity generation that he says will let Canadians breathe easier.

On a visit Friday to the Boundary Dam power station in Estevan, Sask., Kent said the rules will include a performance standard for new coal-fired plants and older units that have reached the end of their life.

"We are taking action in the electricity sector because we recognize the potential for significant emissions reductions," he said.

The standard will be based on emissions levels from high-efficiency natural gas generation. The government hopes to promote replacement of older coal-fired units and encourage investment in cleaner technologies such as high-efficiency natural gas generation, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage.

The government said the proposals, combined with other measures, should cut greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by 31 megatonnes by 2020.

The text of the proposed regulations is divided into four parts. Part one sets out a standard for the intensity of emissions and provides for exceptions, including emergencies and units that are integrated with carbon capture and storage.

A draft is to be published in the Canada Gazette on Aug. 27 for a 60-day public consultation period.

Kent said the regulations are scheduled to come into effect July 1, 2015.

"These proposed regulations take into account the fact that many electricity facilities across Canada are old and need to be replaced soon. We're acting now to ensure that power companies understand today, the rules that will affect the new investments they have to make tomorrow," he said.

Under its Copenhagen Accord commitments, Canada aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Friday's announcement came after the government said in June 2010 that it would adopt new regulations to clean up the air. Ottawa said at the time that 13 per cent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions come from coal-burning electricity generation units. There are 51 of them in Canada and 33 come to the end of their economic lives by 2025. Jim Prentice, who was environment minister then, said 19 of the 33 oldest units do not currently meet the proposed new standards.

Questions have already been raised about whether a coal-fired power plant in northern Alberta was deliberately rushed to avoid new rules.

Earlier this summer, the Alberta Utilities Commission granted an interim approval to Calgary-based Maxim Power (TSX:MXG) to build a 500-megawatt coal-fired expansion to a generating plant near its mine near Grande Cache, Alta.

The approval came after a letter to the commission from Maxim in which company lawyers asked for a quick approval. Maxim's letter said having to abide by the federal legislation would likely kill the $1.7-billion expansion, which would emit about three million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year -- roughly twice the carbon dioxide of an equivalent natural-gas-fired plant.

Environmental groups have voiced concern about the regulations.

The Pembina Institute told Environment Canada last November that it welcomed the government's commitment in principle to put an end to conventional coal-fired electricity. But the institute said the proposed natural-gas-based performance standard is "insufficiently stringent" and doesn't go far enough to meet zero emissions.

The institute also said reducing pollution from electricity generation requires a massive scale-up in government support for renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency.