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Utech to become Obama's top climate, energy adviser

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dan Utech, a long-time Washington insider on environmental issues, will become President Barack Obama's top adviser on energy and climate change, a White House official said on Friday, a role that will involve tough decisions on power plants and TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline.

The move had been widely expected after the Obama administration said earlier this month that Heather Zichal, who served five years in the position, would step down. Her last day is Friday.

Utech will help Obama implement his climate action plan, which involves limiting carbon emissions from power plants and the pipeline project that would link Canada's oil sands with refineries in Texas.

Obama set a June 2014 deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency to propose limits on existing power plants, one of the top U.S. greenhouse gas sources. The rules need to be finalized a year after that.

A decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is expected next year, after the State Department and other agencies weigh in on whether the project is in the national interest. Obama said in August he could not approve the project if it significantly worsened climate change.

Utech, the deputy director for climate at the White House, was also a one-time adviser to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Before that he served as an aide in the U.S. Senate for a decade, working on energy and environmental issues.

"Dan Utech is a worthy successor to Heather Zichal," said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. "He brings keen analytical and political skill to the challenge of making President Obama's Climate Action Plan into reality."

Zichal was "a trusted advisor" and "has been a strong and steady voice for policies that reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, protect public health and our environment, and combat the threat of global climate change," Obama said in a statement.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, Roberta Rampton and Patrick Rucker; editing by Jackie Frank)

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