Two oil refiners will be given several more years to meet a Clinton-era rule intended to produce cleaner air by cutting the sulfur content in gasoline for passenger vehicles, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman announced Monday.

"The relief I am granting today will give these refiners the ability to continue providing gasoline to consumers while moving ahead to provide cleaner air for all Americans," she said.

The two refiners, Wyoming Refining Co. of Newcastle, Wyo., and the National Cooperative Refinery Association of McPherson, Kan., had asked for the flexibility in meeting the clean-air standards under a hardship provision included by the Clinton administration in its December 1999 rule.

The new rule requires the nation's gas suppliers to meet an average sulfur level of 30 parts per million under a phase-in approach starting in June 2004, less than the current average of nearly 300 ppm.

Earlier this year, the EPA also granted the same flexibility to United Refining Co. of Warren, Pa.

The delay gives the cooperatively owned Kansas refinery, for example, an extra 2 years to meet the average requirement so that it can come up with the multimillion-dollar financing for new and expensive equipment that also will be used to produce low sulfur diesel fuel.

"We applied for this hardship delay particularly because of the unique problems farm cooperatives have in generating capital," the NCRA vice president, Richard Leicht, said Monday. "It was a solution that reaches a happy balance between the protection of the environment and the economic viability of a small refiner."

Refiners also are required to produce cleaner diesel fuel with an average of no more than 15 parts per million of sulfur for each gallon of gasoline used in heavy duty trucks and buses by June 2006.

About 25 small refiners in the nation account for 4 percent of gasoline production.