The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday announced a new gasoline lead content standard designed to remove lead from the air by cracking down on small refiners that now are allowed to produce gasoline with a high lead content.

Representatives of small refiners predicted the tighter standards will increase gasoline costs and drive small firms to bankruptcy. Big oil companies, which lobbied intensively for the rules, said it would help bring about cleaner air by closing a loophole in lead-content regulations.

EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch, who announced the rule in New York, said the new standard will remove an additional 115 billion grams of lead from the air in this decade at little additional cost. The gasoline consumed in the United States in a year contains about 60 billion grams of lead, and gasoline accounts for most of the lead in the air in urban areas.

The reduction to be achieved by the final rule represents a 34 percent improvement over the reduction that would have been achieved by leaving existing rules in effect, Gorsuch said.

The EPA had announced in August that it would impose new, stricter controls on lead in gasoline, but the original proposal set different standards for big and small gasoline producers.

Major refineries would have been required to limit the average lead content of leaded gasoline to 1.1 grams per gallon -- a standard most big companies already meet. But refineries producing 10,000 barrels a day or less would have been allowed to sell gasoline containing as much as 2.5 grams of lead per gallon.

Under the rule announced yesterday, small refineries will be allowed to produce gasoline with up to 1.9 grams of lead per gallon of gasoline but only until July 1, 1983. After that, all refiners will have to comply with the 1.1-gram limit.

"I think we're pretty well out of the gasoline business," said David Thayer, president of Mountaineer Refining in La Barge, Wyo. Thayer's refinery in western Wyoming produces 500 to 1,000 barrels a day. Thayer said he would try to stay in business but that the lead decision makes it more difficult to do so.

According to Thayer and others who speak for the small refiners, the lead content in their gasoline has little damaging impact on the public health because it is a small portion of the total supply and generally is sold in the area around the usually remote refineries.

Thayer said the lead standard is "really just a power play. As soon as Reagan got elected, we pretty well knew the big refiners were going to make a play, and it was a pretty good play."

"We do tend to botch up the market because we do tend to sell gasoline cheaper than the majors do," he said. Thayer claimed small refiners in his area have kept the market price of gasoline down by 3 to 5 cents a gallon. The gasoline they produce is from crude that no one else wants to use because it has too much water or sand in it, he said.

The major refiners, on the other hand, have argued that it is a matter of simple equity--that everyone should live by the same standard.

"If EPA determines that the current level of lead in gasoline is bad for health, the health effect is the same no matter who puts it in," Edward T. DiCorcia, vice president of the refining department of Exxon Co. USA, said in comments typical of the arguments made by major refining companies. "It is not in the interests of consumers for EPA to subsidize certain favored suppliers in a competitive market," he said.