Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, a frequent target of those who rail against regulation, spent the day yesterday promoting private-enterprise approaches to cleaning up the air.

In a day-long conference for would-be brokers of air pollution rights -- an industry they hope to create, the EPA's regulatory reform staff held out the promise of big bucks and clean air all in one fell swoop.

The conference on brokering emission reduction credits drew approximately 200 attorneys, environmental engineers and state and regional officials. It was part of increasing emphasis by the EPA on using market mechanics to encourage corporations to find the cheapest, most efficient ways of cleaning up the air.

"EPA already has a market system that is cleaner, simpler, cheaper and more certain for regulated firms" than forcing clean-ups through increased regulation, said Michael H. Levine, chief of the EPA's regulatory reform staff. The system "benefits the environment and makes money for brokers," said Levine, who characterized it as the classic definition of a good deal.

One part of the approach is the "bubble concept, in which the EPA allows polluting firms to pick and choose among sources of pollution to find the most efficient way to achieve the required reduction in emissions rather than requiring that emissions from each source be reduced to acheive the same improvement.

Another is offset trading, in which one company can pay for another company to reduce air pollution emissions sufficiently so that the first company's expansion or construction of a new facility doesn't result in a net increase in pollution.

In both cases the programs allow a source of pollution to meet its responsibility to clean up by securing required emissions reductions from any points within either its own or someone else's facilities.

What the EPA hopes to do now is encourage regions and states to set up banking systems that would help ease trading and to encourage brokers to help build an active market for trades.

The approach revolves around the fact that different companies can clean up the same amount of pollution for widely varying costs. "Those costs differences are a great opportunity," said Levine.

Three areas have banking programs in effect that allow companies to store reductions in emissions for future use or sale. Brokering has only just begun, however.

Besides making money for brokers, the marketplace approach can save plants millions of dollars, Levine said. He noted that more than 70 "bubble" proposals have been developed at an average $2 million savings per year for the companies involved. Some 1,000 offset trades have been made, but most have been within companies rather than one company selling a reduction to another.

Levine said that in the long run the market system should be "an incentive for innovation because it makes it profitable to look for new ways and cheaper ways to control air pollution."