A federal agency has cleared the way for the District of Columbia to allow motorists to make right turns on red traffic signals only at intersections where signs say they are permitted.

City officials said actual adoption of the new rule is months in the future. They said the new ruling should end months of uncertainty over the city's compliance with a congressionally enacted energy conservation law that requires nationwide adoption of right-turn-on-red.

The District has been under strong pressure from federal agencies and Congress to put the new rule into effect. The Senate Appropriations Committee trimmed $440,500 from the city's proposed 1979 budget Wednesday in an attempt to force compliance.

The basic nationwide standard calls for allowing right turns after stops at all red signals, except where signs say they are prohibited. Such a rule is used in both Maryland and Virginia.

However, District officials contended this would not be safe in Washington, with its complex intersections caused by the city's diagonal avenues and numerous traffic circles, and its narrow tree-lined residential streets.

Because of this, the officials said only about 13 percent of the city's intersections - about 180 out of 1,400 - would qualify for right turns on red.

Joined by Philadelphia, Boston and a few other large eastern cities, the District asked the U.S. Department of Energy to approve the more restrictive rule where it was appropriate.

New guidelines approving the request were received by the D.C. municipal planning office from EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office, and were released yesterday by Ben W. Gilbert, city planning director.

"I can't tell you how and when we will respond to this," Douglas N. Schneider Jr., D.C. transportation director, said, "We've got the permission, now we must decide how to proceed."

The new rules requires the District to apply for an extension of the current deadline of Sept. 30 for adopting a right-turn rule, and then to file a detailed "action plan" for putting the program into effect without delay.

They also stress that the District must be sure that "all intersections which ought to be considered safe (for the right-turn rule) have been appropriately incorporated into the action plan."

An aide to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) author of the nationwide right-turn law and of this week's amendment to cut the D.C. budget, said the senator probably would not be satisfied if the city adopted its original proposal for turns at only 180 intersections.

"But if they come up with something that allows a lot more intersections, I am sure that would be material," the aide said.