The Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure to reduce the cost of its regulations, yesterday offered industry significant new flexibility in meeting federal air pollution standards.

Under the industry-supported plan, firms would be allowed to devise their own program for achieving an overall air quality standard, rather than complying with separate standards for each part of their operations.

William Drayton, assistant EPA administrator, said the proposal, nicknamed the "bubble," would save companies "a great deal of money." Steel producers, chemical manufacturers, electric utilities, automobile manufacturers and petroleum refiners would benefit most, Drayton said.

The bubble is part of a package of new regulatory policies under development at EPA. For example, the agency is considering auctioning pollution permits in areas where the air is relatively clean but industry must be limited. In areas where the air is so unhealthy that new growth would be illegal, the agency might allow existing plants to reduce their pollution, "banking" reductions for future use or to sell to other companies.

"Traditionally EPA has formulated a written rule and told everyone in the world, "Thou Shalt Obey,'" Drayton said. "Bust that command and control approach has a certain inflexibility.

"The bubble is the first major alternative to that traditional form of regulation. It is a very important experiment," he added.

The word bubble is used because, instead of regulating each smokestack within a plant, the agency would place a theoretical bubble over the facility allowing the company to determine how much pollution does not increase.

Drayton said the proposal would encourage innovation in pollution control. By changing the location and strength of environmental equipment, a company can do the same job more efficiently and inexpensively, he added.

For example, it could cost an oil facility $4,300 to clean up a ton of pollution escaping from leaks in pipes, but only $50 a ton to tighten up the roofs of its storage tanks to prevent evaporation. By placing stricter controls on the tanks, and looser ones on the leaks, the company could save $4,250 per ton.

Likewise, an auto paint shop could decide it is cheaper to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from its grease removal operation rather than from its painting operation. It could apply for a permit to do so under the bubble concept.

Traditionalyy, states have had different regulations for each process requiring a specific amount of control in the case of the oil facility, on leaks and on storage tanks, and in the case of the auto shop, on grease removal and spray painting operations.

EPA assistant adminstrator David Hawkins said the bubble idea has encountered skepticism within EPA and among environmental groups and state agencies. However, he stressed that states will not be required to adopt it and that a company would have to prove it would not cause more pollution under a bubble permit.