For 13-years, a group of utilities planned to dig four underground mines and build a giant coal-fired plant on Utah's Kaiparowits plateau, shipping the electricity to energy-starved Southern California.

Last April, the proposed $3.7 billion project was cancelled after intense opposition from environmentalists who said it would dirty the pristine air of nearby federal parks.

Jimmy Carter wants more coal-fired plants. But he also proposes, in his energy message, to protect areas, like Kaiparowits, "where the air is still clean from significant deterioration." In the eyes of coal companies, utilities and some environmentalists, Carter's goals - to woo the nation back to coal from oil and gas, while enforcing strict environmental laws - are mutually exclusive.

The coal industry - which, one might think, would be delighted by the Carter program - is complaining bitterly. "This is not the big green light for coal," scoffed Carl Bagge, president of the National Coal Association. "That would require some reasonable environmental tradeoffs."

Bagge's pitch may be self-serving, but the administration's plan to increase coal production by two-thirds in eight years and force utilities to burn coal instead of oil and gas does indeed face immense logistical economic and environmental obstacles.

Ever since the 1973 oil embargo, the government has tried to encourage mining and using coal. The Interior Department lifted a previous moratorium on leasing vast Western coal lands. President Ford vetoed the strip-mine bill twice. The Federal Energy Administration mounted a complex program to force utilities to switch to coal.

But for all these actions and despite a rapid rise in coal prices - from $8.41 a ton in January 1973 to $18.41 last December - domestic production has increased by only 3.7 per cent a year since the embargo. This year, 672 million tons are expected to be mined, a 1.1 per cent increase over 1976.

Why such a laggard pace when coal is cheaper and more plentiful than oil and gas? "The problem with coal," sighed coal association vice president Glenn Schleede, "is that you can't dig the stuff and you can't burn it."

The nation's vast underground rivers of coal from 90 per cent of its energy reserves, but coal accounts for only 18 per cent of energy actually consumed.

There are good reasons for the disparity. Coal is dirty, difficult and expensive to extract from the ground. Depp mining has cost $80,000 lives in accidents and lung disease since 1910. Strikes are frequent. Strip mining has left 20,000 miles of scars on Appalachian mountains from Pennsylvania to Alabama.

Once coal is extracted, it is difficult to transport. Railroads are in disrepair. Rivers lack adequate locks for expanding barge traffic. Construction of coal slurry pipelines, which would transport powdered coal mixed with water, have been delayed because water is scarce and railroads won't give rights of way.

Finally, burning coal in industrial and utility boilers pollutes the air: sulfur, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and dirt contaminated with mercury and other metals cause heart and lung disease, corrode buildings, ruin crops with acid rain and may damage the atmosphere.

In discussing coal in his message, Carter said, "Its production and use create environmental difficulties, but we can cope with them through strict strip-mining and clean air standards."

Environmental Protection Agency Adminsitration Douglas Costle said the major elements of coal conversion are to be phased in gradually, so there is time to develop and install equipment to continue cleaning up the air. "But there may be some areas of the country where, for public health reasons, it may be difficult to burn coal," he added.

But if Carter insists on encouraging strict strip mining and clean air laws, his program amounts to "show business," Bagge claims. "He wants to look like he's doing something."

R.E. Samples, head of Pennsylvania's Consolidation Coal Co., said, "It sounds good on the surface that we're going to have a switch and an emphasis on coal. But we're still faced with all the constraints that have been placed on us. (Carter) didn't say word on how he's going to make it possible for us to produce more coal."

Strip mine legislation, deemed certain to pass this year, would require companies to return land to approximately its original shape once it is bulldozed and the coal removed. Carter proposed to go even further than the House and Senate bills by enacting a five-yer moratorium on strip mining prime agricultural land.

Clean air act amendments, also pending in Congress, would force new coal-fired plants to have expensive "scrubbers," machinery that removes sulphur from the smokestack. Carter favors requiring scrubbers even if plants use low-sulphur coal - a measure which could reduce demand on Western strip mines where most low-sulphur coal is found.

The clean air act also prohibits increasing air pollution in clear-air areas, and increasing it in dirty-air areas - principles which Carter says he is not prepared to abandon.

However, two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Air Coalition, fear that even with strict clean air act amendments, a major switch to coal would cause substantial damage to the environment. Especially problematic, they said, would be an increase in sulphates, a substance produced when sulphur dioxide interacts with other chemicals and the weather, causing acid rain that ruins crops and kills fish.

Most of the coal burned in this country - 74.6 per cent in 1976 - is used by utilities to produce electricity. (Of the rest, 14.1 per cent goes to the steel industry, 10.1 per cent for general industrial use and 1.2 per cent for home and commercial heating.)

Carter's emphasis on coal follows to some extent an existing trend in the utility industry. Because of the scarcity and rising cost of oil and gas, utilities are planning only 26 oil-burning and 9 gas-burning plants in the next eight years - compared with 250 coal-fired and 125 nuclear-fueled units, according to the Federal Power Commissions.

The crunch will come if Carter tries to force a rapid conversion of existing oil and gas plants to coal. He wants to prohibit new plants, and existing ones originally built for coal, from burning oil and gas - a principle the Republican administration tried unsuccessfully to implement. Also, under the Carter plan, all industries using oil and gas would be taxed, beginning in 1979, and utilities beginning in 1983.

In the last three years, the Federal Energy Administration has issued preliminary orders to 50 power plants which once burned coal, but switched to oil in the last 10 years. Not a single plant has converted back to coal as a result of an FEA order, although several of those which received orders already had switched.)

Utilities say they aren't converting because they are hampered by environmental laws and financial considerations. Some are prepared to go to court to avoid spending the money for extensive boiler machinery, pollution equipment and storage facilities needed for coal.

The FEA program also is burdened by a complicated maze of regulations and the requirement for extensive financial and environmental impact statements.

Total conversion is "unreachable," according to the Edison Electrical Institute, which represents utilities. It would cost $50 billion to convert existing plants to coal by 1985, thus diverting capital from new coal-fired plants that operate more cheaply and cleanly, EEI said.

John McCormick, a coal expert at the Environmental Policy Center, a Washington lobby group, said the 1979 deadline for coal conversion proposed in legislation sponsored by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) is too strict. But Carter's proposal to forbid utilities from burning natural gas by 1990 " is a realistic timetable," allowing for the development of new technology to mine and burn coal more cleanly, he said.

"We're not going to allow any environmental tradeoffs," McCormick added.