Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox this week declared illegal Gov. Jennifer ­Granholm’s recent move to enact tougher regulations for proposed coal plants in the state.

Granholm in early February issued an executive order for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to impose stricter environmental evaluations on proposed plants, effectively sending back to the drawing board at least five pending proposals.

Under the new regulations, companies would be required to provide an analysis of the state’s actual need for a new power plant as well as an analysis of any alternatives to purely coal-fired plants.

Granholm’s move immediately attracted criticism from utilities and some state lawmakers, who said the order would mean the loss of billions of dollars.

Cox, a Republican who is expected to run for governor in 2010, this week issued a 19-page opinion that said the executive order amounted to writing a new law, as the new requirements are not part of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

“Governors can sign bills into law, but they cannot write them,” Cox said in a statement. “If the governor wants to pursue changes to the law, the Legislature is the proper forum.”

Granholm’s office issued its own statement disagreeing with Cox’s opinion.

“As a former attorney general, the governor believes [Cox] has misread both state and federal law,” the statement said. “The state will be seeking clarification directly from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.”

Michigan currently has 19 coal-fired plants.

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