Exxon Corp., Amoco Corp. and Atlantic Richfield Co. want you to buy cleaner-burning gasoline. Mobil Corp. and Amoco will be glad to recycle your used motor oil for free. Texaco Inc. wants you to inflate your tires and take other steps to burn less gasoline. And Chevron Corp. boasts of its environmental "commitment to excellence" -- sending out that message on recycled paper, no less.

Big Oil is jumping on the environmental bandwagon. Over the past few weeks, several of the nation's oil companies have announced environmental initiatives in varying degrees -- backed by millions of dollars in advertising.

The oil business certainly is not alone in trumpeting its environmental awareness; companies in almost every industry have followed public opinion by becoming more visibly attuned to the environment lately.

But the oil industry is going "green" -- becoming environmentally sensitive -- at a time when it could use a little goodwill. Skyrocketing gasoline and oil prices and the resulting hefty profits at some companies have renewed public and political enmity toward Big Oil. The industry was a particular target of the Clean Air Act that Congress recently passed. And one of the nation's most notorious environmental disasters, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska last year, still is a recent memory.

Oil companies insist that while most of their pro-environment announcements seemed to be clustered around the release of third-quarter profit results and the debate over the Clean Air Act, the timing was coincidental. They argue that they've attempted to be environmentally responsible for years and that many of their recent actions are the result of long-standing programs that cost billions of dollars.

Nonetheless, some environmentalists and industry critics say that the oil industry is just trying to polish its image at a time of heightened criticism. And they contend that some of the recent actions amount to little more than lip service or are about to be required by law anyway.

"My gut tells me it's more image than anything," said Michael Francis of the Wilderness Society, a Washington-based environmental group. "They're trying to sound green, but really, are they green on the interior?"

"While we are happy to see the industry move in these rather small ways, we think fundamental changes are required," said Bruce Manheim, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.

For their part, oil companies say their environmental push is good business all the way around: It's likely to attract consumers attuned to doing business with environmentally responsible companies; it may reduce antagonism between the industry and environmental groups; and it could head off legislation the industry considers punitive -- not to mention improving the companies' overall image.

"The environmental responsibility is important to our customers. Our marketing research continues to show that," said Robert J. Rauscher, vice president of marketing for Chicago-based Amoco.

"If it does result in better thoughts of Texaco {and} the oil industry, then that would be a good result," Texaco spokeswoman Anita Larsen said of the company's pro-energy-conservation ad campaign. But she insisted that the company is pushing conservation primarily as a way to prevent oil shortages this winter and for the environmental benefits of using less oil.

The companies say their commitment to the environment is backed by considerable expenditures. Amoco, for instance, boasts of spending $750 million over the past few years to upgrade its Texas City, Tex., refinery to produce cleaner-burning gasoline. Chevron spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on environmental projects and research, according to William J. Mulligan, manager of environmental affairs for the San Francisco-based company -- although he concedes that it's difficult to determine how much of that money is specifically for environmental benefits and how much would have been spent anyway on product development, facilities modernization, waste cleanup and other tasks.

Some of the oil companies' initiatives are comparatively cheaper: offering to collect used oil for recycling, for instance, involves installing a tank and some other equipment at a service station -- although Mobil also is indemnifying participating dealers against the hazardous waste costs of handling collected oil. And many of the advertising dollars being spent on pro-environment and pro-conservation oil company commercials have been switched from earlier ad campaigns that urged motorists to drive more and use more gasoline -- a politically and commercially less palatable pitch when gas prices are soaring and supplies are tight.

Critics say the oil companies aren't going far enough. While the companies may be putting on a facade of environmentalism, they remain major industrial polluters, the detractors say, and, in any case, oil itself is a highly polluting fuel.

In addition, environmentalists argue, the oil companies have been promoting environmentalism at the same time they've been attempting to water down the Clean Air Act and other environmental legislation. The industry also continues to lobby for the opening of oil-drilling areas in Alaska and at offshore sites that environmentalists oppose.

"We had the oil companies oppose the Clean Air Act, the double-hulled tanker provisions, the fuel efficiency and mileage-standard improvements ... and any controls on their price gouging of the American consumers," said Bob Hattoway, an official of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. "So quite simply, we just don't believe them."

Some of the actions taken by the companies in recent weeks anticipate requirements in the Clean Air Act or are a reaction to other laws already on the books or coming soon. Industry officials say the tougher requirements on gasoline quality, plant emissions and other activities contained in the Clean Air Act will cost each company billions of dollars.

The low-emission gasolines recently introduced by Exxon, Amoco and Arco meet or come close to meeting pollution-control requirements that the Clean Air Act requires by 1992, for instance. And the oil-recycling programs announced last week by Amoco and Mobil come as states and localities, including Virginia, are tightening rules on the dumping of used motor oil.