Companies have again become interested in the coal under federal lands in the West--just a bit more than a decade after their interest had dwindled to the point that the federal government imposed a moratorium on leasing exploration rights.

Last week, in only the second major sale since the 10-year moratorium was lifted late in the Carter administration, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management received record high bids totaling $55 million for coal exploration rights on 44,000 acres in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. That sale was made after U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Richey denied an attempt by the Northern Cheyenne Indians to block the sale on the ground that Interior had not adequately considered the environmental effects of coal exploration on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. The land in question surrounds the reservation, but is not actually owned by the Northern Cheyenne.

The high bidders, whose proposals must be approved by both the Justice Department and Interior, have purchased 10 years of rights to 1.5 billion tons of coal. The states get half the revenues from the leases and the coal exploration companies will pay the government royalties of 12.5 percent of the fair market value of coal mined. The sale was "resoundingly successful by any measure," Interior Secretary James G. Watt said.