The Interior Department's plans to sell rights to as much as 542 million tons of government-owned coal in North Dakota next Wednesday provoked a major summertime confrontation in Congress. The noise level of the controversy has died down, but the battle has gotten grittier.

When Congress went home, the Democrat-dominated House Interior Committee had voted along party lines to bar Secretary James G. Watt from holding the Sept. 14 sale in the Fort Union region of North Dakota. Invoking a section of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the panel called on Watt to "withdraw" the North Dakota tracts from his hotly debated leasing program.

The North Dakota sale is the next stage of Watt's coal development program, which aims to lease up to 15 billion tons by 1985, an initiative that interior says will speed domestic energy development and create jobs. Critics contend that leasing large quantities during a recession in the coal industry constitutes a "giveaway" to mining companies and a poor deal for taxpayers.

The controversy peaked in June, when the Senate came within three votes of cutting off funds for coal leasing in interior's fiscal 1983 supplemental appropriations bill. Instead, the final bill called on Watt to appoint an independent commission to determine whether the government is getting fair-market prices for its coal, and whether policies should be changed.

Meanwhile, the House panel contended that its "withdrawal" of the North Dakota tracts--the only lands scheduled to be leased for the rest of fiscal 1983--effectively blocked the North Dakota sale anyway.

But Watt sees it differently, and plans to go ahead with the sale, invoking nothing less that the U.S. Supreme Court in his defense. He contends that the committee's vote is essentially a one-house veto, a device the court declared unconstitutional in a landmark decision earlier this year.

Yesterday, another obstacle arose in Watt's path when the National Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society, two of his more dogged foes, asked a federal district court judge here to declare Watt's defiance of the committee "arbitrary, carpricious, an abuse of discretion and otherwise not in accordance with the law." The groups are expected to seek a court injunction today to block the sale.

At the same time, the new Commission on Fair Market Value Policy for Federal Coal Leasing, chaired by University of Illinois economist David Linowes, held its first hearings here this week, and plans to complete its report in early December after more hearings in Washington and Denver.

Several environmental groups said the commission should broaden the scope of its inquiry to determine whether interior policies have driven down the price of coal leases.

More fireworks are expected once Congress returns next week. * * *

IF IT'S AUGUST, IT MUST BE ALASKA . . . The interior secretary has a novel way of beating the heat of Washington in August. For the past two years, he has gone on business to Alaska.

On a three-week official trip that also took him to California and Washington last month, Watt met with agency employes in Anchorage, and with community groups in Alaska's southeast panhandle in the towns of Ketchikan and Sitka. Under the Alaska Lands Act and other federal statutes, Interior controls much of Alaska.