President Carter's proposed coal conversion program would create "major environmental damage" by dramatically increasing nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory problems and are linked to lung cancer Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) said yesterday.

Hart, who has just been elected co-chairman of the House-Senate Environmental Study Conference, said the administration should compensate for the increase in industrial and power plant pollution by adhering to a strict nitrogen oxide emission standard for automobiles.

Carter has proposed relaxing the nitrogen oxide regulation for autos, but not as much as industry would like.

"The American people are being required to make a Faustian bargain." Hart said, "by trading off public health for a solution to the energy problem."

Hart's comments are among the first open criticisms of Carter's energy package on environmental grounds. Environmental organizations have so far strongly supported the President, who says he will not sacrifice environmental standards to increase energy production.

The administration plan, supported by bills pending in Congress, is to prohibit most industrial and utility plants from burning oil and natural gas.

Citing new figures drawn up by the Energy Research and Development Administration. Hart said coal conversion would result in a 30 per cent increase in nitrogen oxides even if clean air laws are strictly enforced.

If Congress tightened up the Clean Air Act by requiring both new and existing coal-burning plants to use the best pollution control equipment available, nitrogen oxides would still increase 18 per cent because technology to remove them is inadequate, Hart said.

Such an increase does not mean the nation should downgrade conversion to coal. Hart said, "but we shouldn't do so on terms that the automobile companies have carved out. One of the things we can do to reduce the damage (of coal conversion) to public health is to clamp down on the autes."

Clean Air Act amendments to push back deadlines for reducing auto pollutants are pending in Congress, with a major fight expected over rival bills supported by auto companies, by the administration and environmentalists.

Coal conversion would increase sulfur dioxide, which corrodes buildings and harms crops by 10 per cent if clean air laws were strictly enforced and by 60 per cent based on current poor compliance levels Hart said.

Particulates (dust that contains metals like mercury) would increase 79 per cent based on current compliance, but would decrease by 61 per cent if the laws were strictly enforced Hart said.

James L Liverman assistant administrator at ERDA said Hart's figures were based on preliminary data from a study scheduled for completion in July. Figures on national increases in pollution "don't tell you much" he said, because each region varies depending on climate and amount of existing pollution.