The equipment would add an estimated $130 to the cost of a car but reduce certain emissions by 80 percent and, used nationwide, could prevent an estimated 2,400 premature deaths due to air pollution annually.
Automakers have also argued to the EPA and the White House that they need low-sulfur gasoline to start selling cars with lean-burn gasoline direct injection engines -- a key strategy for complying with stricter corporate average fuel economy standards that ramp up to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
"The Obama Administration has taken a series of steps to reinvigorate the auto industry and ensure that the cars of tomorrow are cleaner, more efficient and saving drivers money at the pump and these common-sense cleaner fuels and cars standards are another example of how we can protect the environment and public health in an affordable and practical way," EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in a statement.
"Today's proposed standards -- which will save thousands of lives and protect the most vulnerable -- are the next step in our work to protect public health and will provide the automotive industry with the certainty they need to offer the same car models in all 50 states."
The EPA's proposal would reduce the sulfur content of gasoline from 30 parts per million to 10 parts per million by 2017, the same standard as Europe, Japan and California.
"We think this is a very significant proposal and are delighted that the car makers support it," Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said in an e-mail.
The proposal has the backing of environmental and health groups because it will boost fuel economy and reduce emissions that lead to the formation of soot and smog.
However, the rule is opposed by the oil industry. Upgrading an oil refinery to sell low-sulfur gasoline can cost tens of millions of dollars. Oil industry lobbyists have warned that some refineries might close rather than undergo costly retooling.
"Consumers care about the price of fuel, and our government should not be adding unnecessary regulations that raise manufacturing cost," Bob Greco, a group director at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.
Higher gas prices
Supporters of the rule concede that the proposal could raise the price of gasoline slightly, though they say that fuel efficiency gains from new engine technology would save consumers more money than added costs at the pump.
Reducing sulfur in gasoline would extend the lifetime of a catalytic converter to 150,00 miles from 125,000, the EPA said.
Low-sulfur fuel would also help existing cars run more cleanly, akin to taking 33 million older cars off the road, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Association of Global Automakers have said.
The rules will also bring substantial business to suppliers of catalysts, such as Dow Corning and BASF, which met separately with White House officials to advocate for the rules, meeting records show.