The Environmental Protection Agency proposed tough new standards yesterday for particulate emission controls in diesel fueled cars and trucks, setting the stage for two classical battles: industry vs. regulator, and regulator vs. regulator.

The first battle already has begun. General Motors Corp President Elliott M. Estes responded to the new standards by saying that they could signal the end of domestic diesel car production because the technology to reach the new standards does not exist.

The second battle is just beginning, but is likely to be with us for some time: Does the government want clear air, or does it want to reduce energy demand? Calling for strict air pollution standards and therefore slowing development of diesel cars -- which have 25 to 30 percent greater fuel economy than their gasoline-powerer peers -- would deal a major blow to administration efforts to reduce gasoline usage and develop an independent energy policy.

The new EPA standards -- which were not unexpected -- proposed that maximum particulate emissions from 1981-model diesel cars be 0.6 gram a mile, dropping to 0.2 gram for 1983s and later model years.

General Motors' present dieselpowered Oldsmobile emits 0.78 to 1.02 grams a mile, while the Volkswagen Rabbit diesel emits 0.23 gram. The Mercedes diesel models presently emit from 0.45 to 0.83 gram a mile, according to EPA estimates.

In announcing the new proposed standards yesterday, EPA Administrator Douglas M. Costle said "diesel cars emit between 30 to 70 times as many particulates as catalyst-equipped gasoline-powered cars. The expected increase in diesel auto production during the next several years would add to the difficulty of cleaning up air polution in most cities."

The EPA believes that the auto industry has adequate time to develop the technology needed to meet the new standards, Costle said.

GM's Estes does not believe the technology will exist in time, however.

"We feel (the new regulations) don't give us the flexibility we need to make fuel economy improvements and help meet the nation's energy conservation goals," Estes said yesterday.

"As it stands now, we will have considerable difficulty in meeting the proposed 1981 standard," he said. "This suggested standard can be meet with today's engines only for the smaller subcompact cars. For the larger engines needed for the larger cars where fuel economy gains are greatest, the standard will be difficult to meet."

A.B. Shuman of Mercedes was less bothered by the EPA proposed standards, however. "We're a little better off than GM," Shuman said. "Our cars, as well as Volkswagens, as they presently are, meet the 1981 standard."

But Shuman acknowledged that Mercedes can not yet meet the 1983 standard. "We are working toward it," he said, exuding the more positive attitude toward polution regulation that has been taken by foreign auto manufacturers.

Industry sources say GM's problems can be traced directly to engine size.

"GM has a 350-cubic-inch diesel that's twice the size of the largest diesel engine offered by Mercedes," said one industry source.

"As long as their engines are that large, they have a problem."

What particularly irks General Motors is the statement by the EPA that "these regulations will not be based on any potential carcinogenic aspect of diesel particulate."

"Particulates emitted from diesel cars are small in size and can penetrate deeply into the lungs," EPA's Costle said yesterday. "We are conducting health-effects research to determine if this polutant can cause cancer. However, the standards being proposed are not based on any such effect."

"Since the EPA indicates that the particulate standard is not being proposed for health reasons, we think that is just one more reason for having more realistic standards -- unless some conclusive evidence is developed that shows the diesel is a health hazard," GM's Estes responded.

As for the economic consequences of the proposed regulations, the EPA contends that the retail prices of diesel cars will increase about $130 for 1981 models and $285 for 1983 cars.

But, it adds, "That cost will be balanced in fuel cost savings." Diesel owners could expect a fuel cost reduction of $138 in 1981 and $165 in 1983, the EPA claims.