It should be only a few weeks -- given the pattern -- before James Watt again lets his mouth run wild, protests that he was misinterpreted, and recants when it becomes clear he wasn't.

In the precious quiet in between, the other Watt deserves to be examined: the unheadlined Watt whose environmental policies are challenged and overturned in the courts, and the inexpert Watt who believes he helps the energy companies he idolizes but who may actually be hindering them.

Few issues provide as vivid a picture of Watt's threadbare policies as strip mining. It was five years ago this month that a federal strip-mine bill became law.

The legislation was the result of years of compromise. The ruination caused by surface mining, and the disregard of numberless coal companies for citizens on the land, cried out for a total banning of the practice. But Congress put the economic investments of energy firms ahead of conservation and the rights of citizens. The 1977 law talked of moderate controls, not bannings.

In the two years before Watt appeared, the moderation was attacked by proposals in Congress for weakening amendments. They were defeated, with Republican support. In 1979, the new Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued regulations to carry out the law in the states. Watt's contempt for protecting the land was seen in his appointing to OSM's leadership two men who had waged unsuccessful assaults on the 1977 law.

Strip-mining interests tried also. But they were flattened by a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling that the law was constitutional.

Defeated by Congress and blocked by the courts, Watt and friends have opted for the final out -- an administrative gutting. OSM has become a torpid agency. Some officials who didn't shine with the proper Wattage for subverting law have been given orders to transfer out of Washington or face dismissal. In the field, regulators have been pressured to back off in their enforcement duties.

All this goes under the name of "relaxing" the regulations. But under Watt, to relax the law means to give it a case of near-total fatigue.

For the secretary, abandoning the strip-mine law -- the way many of his coal chums abandon gashed hillsides -- is part of his private and petty feud against his imagined enemy of environmentalists. That's the misguidedness of it all. In the 26 states where land is stripped, it has been the Great Plains ranchers, the Appalachian families and the Midwestern farmers who wanted, and still want, the devastation controlled.

These citizens are not anti-energy, nor are they the caricatured Brie-eating elitists that Watt in his 20/200 vision sees as all environmentalists. They have accepted the compromises of the 1977 law. They are not saying stop the mining, though that case could be made if we had a land ethic as strong as a profit ethic. They say only, stop the reckless mining.

Citizen suits and litigations against OSM and coal companies are pending in all parts of the coalfields as Watt whips the agency into a feeding frenzy against regulations he finds "excessive and burdensome." This may give Watt and his hunger for combat against fantasized enemies some satisfaction, but it is questionable whether he is even helping the strip-mine industry he believes he is serving.

The coal industry has troubles enough without more litigation. The market is poor. Companies are laying off workers as the stockpiles of unsold coal grow higher. Competition from other fuels -- natural gas and domestic oil -- increases.

Coal companies have vast reserves. But Louise Dunlap of the Environmental Policy Center says that "instead of presenting themselves as the clean fuel of the future, all they can say is that they are the fuel of abundance -- and abundance means, under Reagan and Watt, an abundance of problems created by needless resistance to a law that hasn't hurt the strip-mine industry."

Epitomizing industry closed-mindedness is Carl Bagge of the National Coal Association. He says that "I wish Watt wasn't so timid in regulatory reform." Only an industry deep in a mine shaft of political darkness could accuse Watt of timidity.