James B. Edwards, the man designated to represent America's interests in world energy policy as a member of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet, was seeking four years ago to set up a beer distributorship with possible financing from Kuwait.

And Army Corps of Engineers documents show that Edwards, a former governor of South Carolina and Reagan's nominee for energy secretary, was involved in a local development partnership that ignored federal cease-and-desist orders for nearly two years while he was in office.

Because of those episodes, Edwards is expected to encounter some probing questions in confirmation hearings that open today about his ability to be a tough U.S. advocate in dealing with the Persian Gulf oil producers and about his attitudes toward federal law and environmental concerns.

The need for effective advocacy in relations with the oil producers was spotlighted last year when the Carter administration failed to persuade Saudi Arabia to sell oil for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the giant underground reservoir in Louisiana designed to protect Americans from the effects of an oil cutoff for about three months.

The Saudi oil minister was quoted as saying, "We don't like to see any building of that strategic stockpile -- we don't think it is necessary." The incident left strong apprehensions that the Saudis were attempting to dictate strategic policy to the United States and concern that the administration failed to forcefully overcome the Saudi obstacle.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and perhaps others on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will likely pursue Edwards' perspective on his role as the chief American advocate in the world energy theater and what, if any, business ambitions Edwards harbors with regard to the oil financiers.

The beer distributorship deal, fully acknowledged by Edwards, never came off, but it is one "we intend to grill him on," said an aide to Metzenbaum.

Edwards apparently toyed with the idea of doing business with Kuwaiti interests who were developing the Kiawah resort complex just a couple of dozen miles from Edwards' Charleston home.

South Carolina press reports indicate that while Edwards was in office in 1976, he discussed his efforts to obtain a Coors beer distributorship and the possbility of approaching the Kuwaiti business representatives in his state to provide the financing. Edwards said the discussions occurred during a staff "bull session."

The attempted business venture apparently progressed to the point that Edwards prevailed upon an unidentified friend close to Reagan to broach the proposal to Coors chairman Joseph Coors, a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter over the years.

The message came back from another unidentified intermediary that Coors was not interested in granting a distributorship east of the Mississippi. [This policy was later reversed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.]

In an interview with The Columbia Record, Edwards said the proposal "was never really considered seriously."

Edwards complained in the interview that "being governor has cost me a lot of money. . . . All my life I have invested what little money I had in real estate and other ventures that were honest and aboveboard, and just because I'm governor now I'm not going to start doing any different . . . I'll do what i can to make money honestly."

Edwards implied that the beer distributorship had been an attempt to find a business that was stable and profitable and did not require his full-time attention "so I could devote a lot of time to politics. I'd like to be financially sound enough to devote my life to saving this country."

In the development case, Edwards was one of nine persons in a partnership organized in 1974 to develop Hutchinson Island near Charleston as a duck hunting and fishing club. Army Corps of Engineers documents say that "irreparable damage" was done to the 100-acre salt marsh on the island as a result of a 5,000-foot dike and causaway the partnership constructed.

At one point the corps referred the Hutchinson Island wetlands damage case to the Justice Department, but no action was taken and the situation dragged on for three years.

The chief adminstrator of that partnership in which Edwards held a 10 percent share was J. Sidi Limehouse III, a former state legislator and Charleston attorney whom Edwards once described as "one of my favorite people. Limehouse is serving a five-year federal prison term in Florida for smuggling 9 1/2 tons of marijuana to Hutchinson Island in 1978. Edwards was not implicated in that case.

Corps of Engineers documents say that the partnership constructed the dike in mid-1974 to reduce salt water entry to six tidal creeks on the 3,000-acre island and improve its hunting and fishing.

But the group never applied for any of the necessary permits for the dike, which the corps later charged had illegally disrupted tidal flow. Limehouse refused to allow corps officials to inspect the property, and the corps issued a cease-and-desist order on Aug. 8, 1974.

The partnership never acknowledged the order and maintenance work continued on the dike, so the corps applied on Oct. 21, 1974, to the U.S. attorney for a temporary restraining order. Col. Harry S. Wilson Jr., Charleston district engineer for the corps, said at the time that the order was never issued because no more work on the dike was done after that date.

The corps prepared a referral of the case to the Justice Department in December 1974, but no action was taken because the partnership began trying to negotiate with the corps, Wilson told the South Carolina weekly Osceola in 1976.

Edwards acknowledged in newspaper accounts at the time that the dike action "was technically illegal at the time" but added that the partnership "never intentionally did anything wrong." He charged that the issue had been blown out of proportion in a political blackmail attempt linked to his position to state wetlands preservation legislation.

"I own 10 percent but Sidi and the others manage it," he told Osceola in October 1974. "If we are doing something illegal then we will certainly rectify it."

However, nothing was done until 19 months later, when the partnership applied to the corps in June 1976 for a retroactive permit for the development work. It was subsequently denied and a spokesman for the group, Avram Kronsberg of Charleston, promised that the dike would be opened and all damage repaired. But it was not until late 1977 that the last parts of the dike were finally dynamited and natural tidal flow restored.

Witnesses at today's confirmation hearing are expected to question Edwards on the three-year delay and on his relationship with Limehouse.

Other issues that could surface include Edwards' attitudes toward pollution controls. He told a 1975 news conference that such laws "are not needed here in South Carolina where we have the nice breezes to carry off the emissions and dissipate them."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) last week wrote to Edwards regarding the former governor's longstanding support for nuclear power, asking whether Edwards favored further federal subsidies to the industry. Edwards has called South Carolina "the nuclear capital of the world" because it has five nuclear power plants, one of the nation's three low-level waste disposal sites, a federally owned plant at Savannah River and a ready-to-operate plutonium reprocessing plant that has never been licensed.

"Saying you don't want to reprocess [spent nuclear fuel] is like saying you don't want another Alaska [oil] pipeline," Edwards said in an April 1979 interview.