THE SYNTHETIC Fuels Corporation, established by Congress more than three years ago, is only now beginning to show signs of life. It is beginning to provide, in a small way, the kind of project support for which it was set up. But last month it suffered another setback when its president, Victor A. Schroeder, resigned under pressure. He had interceded with a private company on behalf of one of the SFC's directors, a gesture that the corporation's inspector general characterized as "especially bad judgment." While that episode deservedly attracted attention, it ended with Mr. Schroeder's departure. Meanwhile, the corporation continues to struggle with deeper--and more interesting--confusions of policy.

First of all, Congress gave the corporation contradictory orders. It was to underwrite the development of advanced new energy technologies. But it was also to hit unrealistically high production levels. Putting the technologies to work is important; the production targets are not.

When the Reagan administration arrived, it imposed on the new agency its own ambivalence about government support for industrial development. The president appointed Edward E. Noble chairman of the SFC; he originally favored abolishing the corporation, and has only gradually come to support its purposes. Meanwhile, much time has been lost.

Currently the world's oil supply flows smoothly, and the sense of urgency about energy has evaporated in this land of short memories. Prices are down a little, hinting that the SFC's price and loan guarantees could actually cost the government serious money. That further diminishes any enthusiasm for it on the part of the administration. And yet the logic behind the corporation is as strong as ever. Surely the time to develop alternate sources of energy is while the oil still arrives on schedule. When the deliveries stop, there's no time for research and development.

The SFC has every reason to proceed promptly, as it says it intends to do, with support for new methods of producing fuel on an industrial scale. The most important are the technologies for producing clean gas and oil from coal. Burning coal produces dangerous air pollution; the evidence of those dangers is rapidly accumulating. To develop processes to transform it into other fuels and eliminate the pollutants will do more than improve national security in the event of further disruptions in the supply of imported oil. It will give the country better and safer access to the most abundant of all its sources of energy. But that won't happen unless the federal government pushes. The SFC was created to do that job, and it continues to be essential.