WASHINGTON — The federal government took its first formal step to regulate global warming pollution on Thursday by issuing final rules for greenhouse gas emissions for automobiles and light trucks.
The move ends a 30-year battle between regulators and automakers but sets the stage for what may be a bigger fight over climate-altering emissions from stationary sources like power plants, steel mills and refineries.
The new tailpipe rules, jointly written by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, set emissions and mileage standards that would translate to a combined fuel economy average for new vehicles of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Most drivers will see lower mileage figures in actual driving.
The rules are expected to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases about 30 percent from 2012 to 2016.
Officials said the program would save the owner of an average 2016 car about $3,000 in fuel over the life of the vehicle and eliminate emissions of nearly a billion tons of greenhouse gases over the lives of all regulated vehicles.
Reaching the new efficiency figure will add about $1,000 to the cost of the average new car by 2016, according to industry and government estimates.
The tailpipe rule reflects a truce between the auto industry and state and federal governments, which have been feuding over emissions and mileage standards since the 1970s. It is the first time the federal Clean Air Act has been applied to carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants.
The E.P.A. is now writing greenhouse gas standards for stationary sources, a much larger effort whose impact will be felt across the entire economy. Officials have said those regulations would not go into effect before next year at the earliest, but they are already being fiercely challenged by lawmakers, state governments and an array of industry groups.
Lisa P Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, said the new vehicle rules would save consumers money and provide an incentive for the development of new automotive technology.
“This is a significant step toward cleaner air and energy efficiency and an important example of how our economic and environmental priorities go hand in hand,” she said.
The vehicle emissions program traveled a tortuous path through state regulatory agencies, the courts, Congress and the federal government before a groundbreaking agreement announced in May by President Obama, auto executives, labor leaders and environmental advocates.
The car companies, particularly the domestic makers, had little choice but to accept the deal. Two of the Detroit Big Three, Chrysler and General Motors, were facing bankruptcy and taking federal bailout money. Ford said it was already moving to clean up its fleet and welcomed the certainty of a five-year plan.
The accord produced a single national standard based on California’s tough auto emissions law, enacted in 2004. The automakers have complained of the cost of compliance but welcomed a national plan that does not require them to build different vehicles for different markets to comply with varying state laws.
“This is an example of where the federal government has actually done something right,” said Gloria Bergquist, a vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.. “A year ago, we were facing piecemeal policies set out by E.P.A., D.O.T. and groups of different states. Our auto engineers cannot design vehicles to different standards.”
But Ms. Bergquist said car companies would need to know what their fuel economy rules would be after 2016, when the program announced Thursday ends. She said California regulators were already working on tough new standards for 2017.
Cars, minivans, sport utility vehicles and light trucks will not look or feel markedly different because of the new regulations. Automakers are already improving mileage and reducing emissions with existing technology like smaller, cleaner-burning engines, lighter-weight components, more efficient air-conditioners and seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions.
The rule sets different mileage and emissions standards for different sizes of vehicles, and major manufacturers will have to meet increasingly stringent standards over the 2012-16 period. Vehicles that run exclusively on electricity, like the new Nissan Leaf and the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt for short trips, will be classed as zero-emissions vehicles, although there is a cap on the number of electric vehicles carmakers can claim credit for.
Small-volume automakers like Porsche, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Lamborghini will not have to meet the new standards immediately but must buy credits from large-volume carmakers who exceed the targets. By 2017, all car companies will have to come into compliance.
The rule estimates the cost of compliance for the industry at $52 billion over the five years of the program and calculates benefits at $240 billion. Those benefits include fuel savings, pollution reduction and reduced oil imports.
The government of Canada said Thursday that it was adopting similar regulations for cars and light trucks sold there.
Represemtative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, has pressed for stricter fuel economy standards for years and was a co-author of global warming legislation that passed the House in June.
“After three decades of stagnant fuel economy policy and rising gas prices,” Mr. Markey said, “these new standards finally put America on the path to making our vehicles more fuel efficient and reducing our dependence on imported oil.”