WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is driving ahead with a dramatic reduction in sulfur in gasoline and tailpipe emissions, declaring that cleaner air will save thousands of lives per year at little cost to consumers.
Public health groups and automakers cheered the new rules, finalized Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency, with some insisting they could prove to be President Obama’s signature environmental accomplishment in his second term.
The oil and gas industry panned the move, calling it gratuitous and accusing the government of grossly underestimating the increased cost at the pump.
‘‘The benefits far outweigh the costs,’’ said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, calling it a win for consumers and automakers. ‘‘These standards will reduce pollution, they’ll clean the air we breathe, and protect the health of American families.’’
In the works for years, the rules require refineries to cut sulfur levels in the gasoline by about two-thirds by 2017. Less sulfur in gasoline makes it easier for a car’s pollution controls to effectively filter out emissions, resulting in cleaner air, the EPA says. For car manufacturers, stricter limits on tailpipe emissions will require engineering changes so that cars weed out more pollution.
More than 2,000 premature deaths and about 50,000 cases of children with respiratory problems will be avoided by 2030 if the rules go into effect, the EPA said.
The cost to consumers: less than a penny per gallon of gas, McCarthy said. The EPA also projects the rules will raise the average cost of buying a vehicle by $72 in 2025.
But not everyone agrees.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, pointed to studies it has commissioned estimating that the limits would add 6 cents to 9 cents a gallon to refiners’ manufacturing costs while requiring $10 billion in capital costs. American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group, called it ‘‘the most recent example of the agency’s propensity for illogical and counterproductive rulemaking.’’
‘‘This rule is all pain and no gain,’’ said House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan. ‘‘This winter’s cold snap underscores just how vulnerable American families and businesses are to any increases in energy costs, and yet the administration is moving forward to raise prices at the pump.’’
Pushing back on those charges, McCarthy said that API’s study constituted an ‘‘outdated estimate’’ that didn’t account for changes the EPA made to the rules after receiving public comment — such as a phasing-in that gives some refineries more flexibility to come into compliance.
The political wrangling over the latest round of regulations to hit the energy industry offered a familiar reprise of a long-running debate over Obama’s attempts to use his regulatory power to clean up the nation’s sources of fuel.
Tellingly, there was little pushback from the auto industry, with major automakers like Ford, Toyota, and Honda praising the EPA for setting one standard for emissions that will apply nationwide. California already uses the new sulfur standard, and while the United States has tightened sulfur limits twice before, it still lags behind many other countries.