The Carter administration yesterday recommended a one- to three-year delay in enforcing automobile emission standards.

The standards are "tough but fair" and would not reduce fuel mileage, Environmental Protection Agency Administration Douglas Costle said at a White House briefing for reporters.

However, in a statement from Detroit, General Motors chairman Thomas A. Murphy called the Standards "unnecessarily drastic," adding that they "can only result in more gasoline consumption on the very day the President will be calling for less."

And David G. Hawkins, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, criticized the standard on nitrogen oxides, the most controversial of the administration proposals for curbing three pollutants, as "a big disappointment . . . We though Carter was on our side."

In a comprehensive statement on amendments to the 1970 Clean Air Act, Costle said industry should not be allowed to pollute clean areas of the country. He recommended deferring for a year any final decision on how to accommodate industrial growth in dirty urban areas.

The administration proposal would delay enforcing the current standard for hydrocarbons one year until 1979 and the carbon monoxide standard three years until 1981. It also would delay a final decision on a nitrogen oxide standard until 1980.

Under current law hydrocarbons, which produce smog, must be reduced by 1978 to .41 grams per mile, carbon monoxide to 3.4 grams per mile and nitrogen oxides to .4 grams per mile. Carter proposal would reduce allowable nitrogen oxides emitted by cars to 1.0 grams per mile by 1981, but EPA could decide, based on health studies to reduce them to .4 by 1983.

The Clean Air Act, now undergoing comprehensive revision, is one of the most controversial issues now in Congress. It pits the automobile industry and the United Auto Workers Union, which support a bill sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), against environmentalists who support measures introduced by Rep. Paul G. Rogers (D-Fla.) and Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine).

All agree that the 1978 automobile emission standards, enacted in 1970, are impossible to meet by next year. The dispute centers on how long they should be delayed.

In an interview, Costle said that despite "intensive lobbying" by the automobile companies, the Carter position "comes very close" to that of Muskie and Rogerts.

The standards require a 90 per cent reduction of all three pollutants: hydrocarbons, which aggravate asthma and lung disease; carbon monoxide, which increases heart and lung disease and affects the nervous system; and nitrogen oxides, which cause asthma and emphysema, especially in children.

"Clear air is not an aesthetic luxury," Costle said. "It is a public health necessity . . . The President and I are committed to the principle that our nation must have a strong environmental program as a necessary prerequisite to future progress in solving our energy and economic problems."

Should the administration decide that a .4, rather than a 1.0, standard for nitrogen oxides is necessary, Costle proposed yesterday that it be enforced through a tax of $65 to $120 on 1983 cars that did not meet the standard.

The proposal is the first of several economic incentives Carter is expected to propose as alternatives to increased regulation. Testifying before a House Commerce subcommittee yesterday, Costle endorsed a provision in congressional bills to tax 3,000 industrial plants that are lagging in complying with air pollution laws.

He said new coal-fired power plants and industries should be required to use "best available technology," usually scrubbers, to clean up emissions. Existing gas and oil-field plants that convert to coal should meet federal and state air pollution standards, he said, but not necessarily with scrubbers - a proposal that drew criticism from environmentalists.

Costle endorsed "mandatory protection for national parks and other significant national areas" from new industrial pollution - a measure that cause last year's Clean Air Act amendments to be filibustered in the Senate.

EPA would continue for a year, pending further study, its "trade-off policy" in which industries are allowed to locate in areas that violate air pollution standards only if nearby industries reduce emissions.