WASHINGTON - The Bush administration proposed easing environmental rules Friday to allow oil refineries and other industries to change how they calculate whether they need pollution control equipment.

The oil refinery industry says the eased regulation would open the way for production of more oil and other products. But environmental groups say the proposed rules are gimmicks and loopholes allowing industry to emit more pollution, evade pollution controls and save money.

"This is a big gift to the refinery industry," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group. "They are saying let's close our eyes and pretend pollution is not happening."

In a news release, the Environmental Protection Agency said the proposed rules will make it easier for owners and operators to determine whether changes to a plant or facility require installing pollution control equipment. The rules largely affect oil refineries and pharmaceutical and chemical plants.

U.S. refineries are planning to increase oil refining capacity by 1.4 million barrels a day and will do so under strict environmental standards, said Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

"The new EPA proposals will help the industry respond to these official calls for increased refining capacity," Slaughter said.

Federal law sets the pollution levels that have to be reached before pollution controls, such as scrubbers, must be used. When changes are planned for pollution producing plants or facilities, operators must determine whether the changes increase pollution over the federal levels and apply for permits to make the changes.

The proposed rules essentially change how industry adds up how much pollution is being produced.

For example, one proposed rule change would allow operators to consider pollution levels of equipment separately in determining whether its pollution level has gone up. Under current law, the total level produced by the affected equipment is considered.

The changes "will streamline the permitting process that manufacturers and energy or power producers have to undergo prior to upgrading a facility," said Bryan Brendle, a lobbyist for the National Manufacturers Association.

Brendle said current laws are so complex that they are an impediment to companies that want to install more energy-efficient equipment to save energy costs and reduce air emissions.

John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air director, said EPA is doing little more than proposing accounting gimmicks that allow industry to evade installing pollution controls by considering smaller pollution amounts, rather than pollution from an entire plant.
"It's a way to allow industry to pollute more without cleaning up," Walke said.
EPA must allow 60 days for public comment on its proposed rules before making the rules permanent.