IN THEORY, it's entirely defensible for a secretary of the interior to sell coal leases at less than the maximum possible profit to the government. To get the top price, the Interior Department would have to sell slowly, and only when the market was tight. A secretary might well use his discretion to speed up sales in a deliberate effort to push energy prices down a little and to encourage greater use of domestic coal instead of imported oil.

But the current secretary of the interior, James Watt, is grossly overdoing it. There's no shortage of coal now. On the contrary, because of the recession, coal consumption fell last year while production rose. Stocks are high. Far from being constrained by inadequate supplies, the coal market has been slack. The recent surge of leasing has done little to improve prospects for power production. It has only cost the government money for no visible advantage of any sort.

Much the same thing has been happening in Interior's handling of offshore oil leasing. Mr. Watt believes that most of these resources ought to be in private hands, and he evidently aspires to be the greatest leaser since the founding of the republic-- regardless of costs and losses to the government. In the case of oil, the recent drop in prices has made companies very cautious about embarking on expensive offshore exploration. At the sale in late April, Interior put more than 4,000 tracts up for auction. There was a total of 53 bids.

During the Carter years, there was rising exasperation among the oil and coal companies over the Carter administration's querulous hemming and hawing over leases, and its continual inability to make up its collective mind over what to put up for bids when. That exasperation contributed to Mr. Reagan's election, and Mr. Watt came charging into office promising an enormous acceleration in leasing with a guarantee of no hesitations or second thoughts. In a period like the late 1970s, with inflation high and energy consumption rising, it would have made some sense to use the leasing programs to force down the market a bit. But under present circumstances Mr. Watt's program makes no sense at all.

Like many other people's plans, his have been undercut by the recession. But he refuses to recognize it. Instead, he talks of still further acceleration in coal leasing over the next several years--with little consideration for the effects on air quality, water supply or the impacts on communities. It is a triumph of doctrine over the facts of the case. Congress seems to be preparing to slow him down. It's not too soon.