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BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel fired her environment minister on Wednesday after he led her party to a regional election defeat, replacing him with a loyal conservative ally to push through her plans to take German energy into the post-nuclear era.
Norbert Roettgen, a Merkel protege once see as a possible successor, was removed after his campaign to be premier of the most populous German state, North Rhine-Westphalia, ended in a historic defeat for the Christian Democrats (CDU) on Sunday.
Merkel is expected to seek a third term as chancellor next year and appeared to be distancing herself from the NRW debacle by firing the 46-year-old minister, a rare move for her.
"The energy switch is a central task of this legislative period," she said, referring to the accelerated conversion to renewable energy enforced by her U-turn on nuclear power last year in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima disaster.
Merkel nominated Peter Altmaier, parliamentary whip for her conservatives, to replace Roettgen, saying he would deliver a "new start".
Altmaier is a canny operator in the Bundestag (lower house) who will be tasked with putting Merkel's "Energiewende", or energy switch, back on track after humiliating setbacks like the suspension of plans to slash tariffs to the solar industry in the upper house (Bundesrat) last week.
Germany's main industry lobby, the BDI, immediately offered its support to the new minister, with BDI President Hans-Peter Keitel noting in a statement that the coming months would be "decisive" for the success of the energy switch."
Roettgen is the latest of a long line of senior conservative men considered potential successors to Merkel who have fallen by the wayside, including disgraced head of state Christian Wulff, former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and the ex-premier of the state of Hesse, Roland Koch.
The opposition Social Democrats (SPD), big winners in the state election that brought Roettgen down, accused Merkel of trying to deflect blame for the defeat.
"Angela Merkel is sacrificing Norbert Roettgen to protect herself," said Thomas Oppermann, a senior SPD lawmaker. The head of the party Sigmar Gabriel, a former environment minister himself, called the move "merciless" in a post on Twitter.
Roettgen took personal responsibility for the CDU's worst ever election result in NRW, where the centre-left SPD scored a resounding victory to retain power with their Green allies.
His political star began waning last year when he had to defend Merkel's U-turn on nuclear power to business sectors who worry about the impact on their electricity bills, especially in industrial areas like his political homeland NRW.
Since Merkel's abrupt policy reversal last year to shut over half dozen nuclear plants and speed up the atomic phase-out, her government has struggled to come up with a coherent plan on how to manage a planned switch to renewable energy sources.
Industry has warned of power shortages and companies are experiencing massive problems with their plans for offshore wind power. Merkel urgently needs to get utilities, grid operators and state politicians on board to avoid what opposition politicians call a looming debacle and the issue is likely to stay high on the agenda in the run-up to the 2013 election.
"The energy transition is a challenge for society as a whole, an important task, on which a lot depends for consumers, for the economy and most of all for the environment," Altmaier said shortly after Merkel's announcement.
The chancellor's energy policies suffered another setback last week when proposed cuts in subsidies for the solar industry were suspended by the Bundesrat, where the federal states are represented.
States run by the SPD oppose slashing solar feed-in tariffs, as do some conservative-run regions in the south and east where the solar industry provides jobs and income.
Additional reporting by Annika Breidhardt; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Noah Barkin