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Bulgarian lawmakers back coal plants with vote to roll back green targets

Miners and utility workers protest in Sofia

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's lawmakers on Thursday backed a resolution aimed at avoiding an early phase-out of coal-fired power plants as more than 1,500 miners and utility workers demonstrated in front of the parliament in support of the coal industry.

In a 187-11 vote, lawmakers across the political spectrum agreed that the interim government should start talks with the European Commission and backtrack from its commitment to cut energy sector greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2019 levels by the end of 2025.

That target would prompt the early closure of some of the coal-fired plants that produce over 45% of the country's electricity, lawmakers said, adding that the power generators need to be fully operational until 2038.

"These thermal power plants are giving us energy independence and security. We need to save them," former energy minister Temenuzhka Petkova told the chamber.

Bulgaria set the climate goal as well as a gradual framework for the coal phase out last year as part of its national plan to tap over 6 billion euros ($6.45 billion) in European Union recovery funds.

Faced with the prospect of new elections and high energy costs following the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia, lawmakers, eager to appease voters, said the plan should be re-negotiated to protect the small and open economy, even if it meant losing some of the EU aid.

Bulgaria, a leading electricity exporter in southeastern Europe, has used the hefty inflows from its mainly state-owned energy producers to shield businesses and consumers from surging power costs.

Outside the parliament building, demonstrators urged lawmakers to protect the mines and power plants at the Maritsa East lignite coal complex in southern Bulgaria, which provide jobs to over 10,000 people.

Environmental group Greenpeace has been urging Bulgaria to focus on renewable energy and providing new jobs in the coal regions rather than keeping the polluting plants.

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Bernadette Baum)