I HAVE ALREADY selected my nominee for the most important political book of 1979, though unfortunately it is not available in the bookstores. It has a flat title and an absence of naked ladies, spies, bribery, secrets, murder, the spice necessary these days to keep us minimally interested in politicians.

I am speaking, of course, about the new book by John Quarles, "Federal Regulation of New Industrial Plants, a Survey of Environmental Regulations Affecting the Siting and Construction of New Industrial Plants and Plant Expansions."

Don't be put off by the title. Take it to the beach. Browse through its 240 pages. You will find an unromanticized account of a great political struggle, the triumph of public values and the utter defeat of corporate managers - a political text of the Seventies, an economic primer for the Eighties.

Quarles is a lawyer who served for 61/2 years under Nixon and Ford at the top ranks of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is now back in a law firm representing industrial clients, the oil and chemical giants he used to regulate. Let me state his credentials this way: Right after the 1976 electio, I ran into an old friend, a utilities lobbyist, who I assumed would be gloomy over the loss of his pro-business Republican president.

On the contrary, he was quite cheerful about the change of administrations. "We can live with Carter," the lobbyist explained. "The best part for us is getting Quarles out of EPA."

In short, Quarles was known as a "white hat," a reputation some environmentalists are questioning now that he is on the other side. Indeed, the survey (available for $5, New Plants Report, P.O. Box 998, Ben Franklin Station, Washington, D.C.), was sponsored by biggies like Olin and Martin Marietta and Monsanto and the NAM.

But it is not another anti-regulation polemic. On the contrary, it is a stunning statement of a new American reality: that the decision-making on capital investment once done privately by corporate managers and directors is now shared, accessible to others, subject to veto by government agencies, local politicians, even the public at large.

Quarles isn't advancing an argument, one way or the other. His aim is to confront corporate planners with this new reality. His implicit message is: It won't go away. The new ball game has begun, whether corporate leaders like it or not, and they better learn how to play.

The future is now

For political leaders, for the environmental soldiers who fought in this war and won most of the big battles, Quarles' survey poses an implicit question. Here is what you have accomplished - do you like it? Does it make sense in all of its over-lapping channels and standards and checkpoints?

It's also a lesson on the illusions of history. The notion persists that the Sixties was the time of great legislative activism, that nothing much has happened in the Seventies except Watergate and the litany of government scandals. Wrong. The legislation of the Seventies, in the long run, may be recognized as a more fundamental restructuring of power in America than all of the Great Society programs.

A short list culled from Quarles: The Clean Air Act of 1970 and its 1977 amendments, the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 and the new Wetlands controls, the Fuel Use Act of 1978, the National Enironmental Policy Act of 1970.There are many others, covering specific industries.

Each law by itself did not seem revolutionary. Each announced vague, pious goals and set deadlines far in the future. But the future is now. Dozens of rules that have been years in development are now taking hold. The cumulative effect on the private decision-making of corporations has come home, according to Quarles, only in the last 24 months. He writes:

"From the viewpoint of our national economy, these new regulatory requirements represent a change of untold dimension. Their combined effect may be to transfer ultimate control over the basic questions of when, where and what types of industrial development will occur in various regions of the country from private corporations to public agencies.

"A further effect is to fractionate responsibility for those decisions as real control passes from the centralized decision-making systems of individual companies to diverse mission-oriented regulatory agencies."

In California, Sohio has to negotiate air-pollution debits and credits with Jerry Brown before it can build a pipeline. In Utah a utility company withdraws plans for a new power plant following environmental objections.

The mechanisms are now in place that grant outside access to what used to be private, autocratic decisions. Public hearings signal local politicians that opposition to a steel mill or a refinery is perhaps more potent than the general support for new jobs.

In a way, the government is empowered now to enforce in very specific ways the crude goals it has pursued for decades. A lot of loopholes have been closed. A lot more is known about things like air quality or the dangers of chemicals. A decade of informed critiques from people like Ralph Nader and the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund has produced a generational escalation of government power over business decisions, probably unmatched since the New Deal.

Corporate managers may lament and scream, but the source of these constraints is obvious to the rest of us. Corporations are not trusted to do the right thing, on their own. Over time, despite business pleadings and predictions of economic catastrophe, the Congress decided that public values - an ethical regard for land, air, water, health - could no longer be entrusted to corporate managers.

Calling the Bluff

Business propagandists like to rail at runaway bureaucracies dreaming up impossible standards that Congress never intended, but Quarles' brief legislative histories suggest the opposite. The politicians in Congress have generally ratified the specific rules the EPA drew up. The retreats and postponements are numerous, of course, but the broad direction is toward pinning down industrial decisions, not loosening the reins.

Why? Because the public' mistrust of business is periodically confirmed by chance events in the news. No matter how earnestly corporations insist upon their good intentions, those pleadings are undercut by scandalous realities, like the Three Mile Island crisis, the corporate cover-up of the Love Canal disaster, the kepone poisoning of the James River. Given a choice between a clean operation and saving dollars, what will corporations do? The political judgment is they will dump the stuff in the nearest river.

This mistrust is important in understanding the extraordinary intricacy of the federal regulations. The unspoken premise is that companies will evade the spirit of the rules, if the rules give them an inch of day-light.

For instance, the EPA is now preparing a "manifest system" to keep track of every load of hazardous waste materials so industrial dumping can be traced from its original plant through the trucker to a licenced disposal site. The purpose of this "cradle-to-grave" monitoring system, as Quarles notes, is to pin down responsibility for the damage. "Some industries," he explains, "have been able to hire an independent contractor to haul away their wastes and wipe their hands of whatever methods might be used in their disposal."

"Business attacks the red tape, often because of the cost," Quarles says. "What the public usually thinks is they don't want to spend the money."

This conflict of dollars versus distrust has produced a political game of bluff - from both sides. Business says the clean-up can't be done, that it will cost too much and drive industrial jobs to other countries. The politicians don't believe that and respond with their own bluff - setting rigid deadlines and standards that might be unrealistic, that they will later relax if the political heat gets intense enough.

What I like about Quarles' survey is that he seems to be saying, between the lines: Let's cut out the bluffing on both sides. I can admire Quarles' objective, without sharing much hope for honest talk. Both business and politicians are now so used to bluffing on environmental issues, I doubt they can break the habit. In a way the politics of environmental regulations is mimicking collective bargaining, a process in which bothe sides tell tactical lies to one another and this supposedly leads us to a common truth.

My own hunch about the future is that the reform of these regulatory laws will not lead to the "free enterprise" of the NAM, but toward that dread socialist idea - centralized national planning. And I suspect that corporate managers will be happier with that solution than they ever let on. Right now, these industrial decisions are "democratized" in hundreds of different, moving, interlocking forums. The "government" is not one mind, but scores of different agencies and bureaus and courtrooms and public hearings. A powerful corporation can deal more easily with government power if it is centralized in one place. This is where we are headed, for better or worse.

The early outlines are clear in the behavior of Charles Schultz, the president's economics adviser, who is trying to referee environmental enforcement and balance it with economic objectives. My hunch is that what Schultz is doing now will become institutionalized over the next five years - a federal commisar for industrial growth and clean streams. That office will become a centralized stall for political bargains and, yes, fixes. If you think the present regulatory machinery is a scandal, wait until you see the future. It'll make a hell of a book. CAPTION: Picture, John Quarles: "They just don't want to spend the money."