WASHINGTON -- To cut auto pollution by about three-quarters, sport utility vehicles will have to meet the same emissions standards as cars and sulfur in fuel will be reduced dramatically under regulations announced Tuesday by President Clinton.
The changes would prevent thousands of asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
"It will be the most dramatic improvement in air quality since the catalytic converter was first introduced a quarter century ago," Clinton said. "And manufacturers will be able to meet these new standards while still offering the kinds of models popular with consumers today."
With more cars on the road each year driving more miles, the president said tougher air quality measures were needed. Otherwise, "air quality in many parts of our country will continue to worsen in the coming decades."
The cost increase at the gas pump would be about 2 cents more per gallon; and about $200 would be added to the price of a light truck and $100 to a new car, the EPA estimated.
For the first time, cars and light trucks -- SUVs, minivans, vans and pickups -- would all be required to meet the same strict emissions standards. Nearly half the vehicles sold now are light trucks, and they produce three to five times as much pollution as the average passenger car.
The standards are meant to address pollution in the coming decades.
Auto emissions of nitrogen oxides, a key component of smog, will be cut by 74 percent, and soot will be reduced by 80 percent by 2030 when the car and light truck fleet has fully turned over in the United States.
That is the equivalent of removing 164 million cars from the road, the EPA said.
The new standards also require oil companies to reduce sulfur levels in gasoline by 90 percent, or to an average of 30 parts per million by 2006. The EPA has given smaller refiners an additional two years to meet the requirement.
The EPA said the steep reduction in sulfur was needed because it clogs the catalytic converters that clean auto emissions.
Environmental groups applauded the tougher standards while automakers and the oil industry said they presented formidable challenges.
"There is no bigger single action the federal government could take to address the health and environmental problems caused by air pollution," said the Sierra Club's William Becker.
The new requirement of nitrogen oxides emissions of 0.07 grams per mile would be phased in from 2004 to 2007 for cars while the phase-in for light trucks would extend two more years to allow the largest SUVs more time to comply.
However, all light trucks would have to meet today's standard for nitrogen oxides for cars by 2004, which is 0.6 grams per mile.
By 2009, new light trucks would be up to 95 percent cleaner and cars would be 77 percent cleaner than they are today, Browner said.
The savings in public health benefits from the standards outweighed the extra vehicle cost by 5-to-1, Browner said.
About 260,000 asthma attacks and 173,000 cases of respiratory illness among children would be prevented each year, the EPA said. The emissions reductions also would prevent 4,300 premature deaths and 10,200 cases of bronchitis, EPA officials said.
Automakers had wanted more time for the largest vehicles to comply with the standard and an even lower amount of sulfur in gasoline, an average of 5 parts per million.
"It's a huge challenge," said Jo Cooper of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "We're committed to try to meet it, but we need all the tools in our arsenal that we can get."
Ford Motor Co. vice president Helen Petrauskus said the standards "present formidable challenges" but the company "is prepared to meet or exceed them."
Oil industry representatives argue the new requirements will put some small refiners at economic risk and force gas prices of 6 cents more per gallon at the pump.
The American Petroleum Institute said the oil industry would work to meet the EPA deadline but warned there would be "significant costs to refiners" under a "very tight and difficult-to-meet deadline."
Highlights of tightened automobile emissions standards announced by President Clinton Tuesday:
REFINERS: Most refiners have until 2006 to meet the new sulfur standard for gasoline of an average of 30 parts per million. The average is currently 10 times that, or about 300 parts per million. Small refiners meeting additional criteria will have another two years.
CARS: Cars must meet a fleetwide average of 0.07 grams per mile for nitrogen oxides, a prime component of smog, starting with 25 percent of the fleet in 2004 and reaching 100 percent by 2007.
LIGHT TRUCKS: Light trucks -- SUVs, minivans, vans and pickups -- must meet the same fleetwide average as cars, 0.07, by 2009. All SUVs are included, even the heaviest ones such as the Ford Excursion and General Motors Suburban that can weigh over 8,500 pounds. The standard excludes the heaviest commercial pickups and commuter vans.
PHASE-IN: Starting in 2004, 25 percent more cars will be required to meet the new 0.07 standard each year until the phase-in is completed in 2007.
Light trucks must meet the current standard for cars of 0.6 grams per mile for nitrogen oxides by 2004, and 25 percent more light trucks must meet 0.2 grams per mile of nitrogen oxides each year through 2007. By 2009, all light trucks up to 8,500 pounds and SUVs up to 10,000 pounds must meet the 0.07 standard.