In his weekly radio address, Mr. Clinton called the proposed new rules "one of the most important steps we can take to clean the air we breathe, and protect the health of all Americans."
"The benefits of the proposal may outweigh the costs by as much as four to one," he said.
"Americans love to drive, and we're driving more," Mr. Clinton noted. "But the emissions from our cars, particularly from the larger, less-efficient vehicles, threaten to erode many of the air quality gains America has achieved. As a result, many of our cities and states are no longer on course to meet our vital air quality goals."
The Environmental Protection Agency, with a final rule expected by the end of the year, proposed that for the first time sport utility vehicles be brought in line with cars in terms of tailpipe emissions. It also called for the sale of only low-sulfur gasoline so emission control equipment can work efficiently.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner rejected arguments by the oil industry that the sulfur reductions sought by the agency would be overly expensive and force the closing of some refineries.
The price of gasoline on average would increase one or two cents a gallon, or $12 to $24 a year for a typical family, and new emissions technology on cars would add $100 to $200 to the price of a vehicle, she said.
"It's not an awful lot to pay for cleaner air," Browner insisted, saying the EPA estimates the cost of the tougher requirements at $4.4 billion, compared with $16.6 billion in benefits to public health.
But the oil industry has said the sulfur-reduction requirement alone could require more than $6 billion in new refinery investments and force some smaller refineries to close. It estimated retail gasoline prices would increase as much as 6 cents a gallon.
The administration hasn't made "a compelling case" for a need for low-sulfur fuel nationwide, said William O'Keefe, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute. He said the industry planned to try "to make a persuasive argument" to get the proposal changed.
The plan calls for:
- Automakers to cut smog-causing tailpipe emissions by an average of 80 percent, including a 95 percent reduction in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.
- Refiners to slash sulfur content from an average of 340 parts per million to 30 parts per million, a 90 percent cut, in the 2004-2006 period.
- SUVs and pickups for the first time would be subject to the same tailpipe emission requirements as cars. Today, those vehicles can legally emit two and three times the pollution as cars.
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