A federal judge yesterday barred Interior Secretary James G. Watt from issuing five disputed coal leases in North Dakota for 10 days, suggesting that he did not trust the department to keep its word and wait until the leasing process can be tested in court.
"I'm not going to turn my back again," U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer told Interior Department lawyers in a case that has grown into a confrontation between the department on one side and environmental groups and a House committee on the other.
On Wednesday, the Interior Department sold leases covering 540 million tons of coal in defiance of a House Interior Committee resolution directing Watt to postpone the sale because of environmental concerns. Watt contended that the directive was unconstitutional, citing a June 23 Supreme Court decision striking down the right of either congressional chamber to veto actions by the executive branch.
Two environmental groups, contending that the House committee directive was still valid, asked Oberdorfer to block the lease sale. The judge originally declined after Interior Department lawyers told him the leases would not be issued "for something like 45 to 60 days," which would have left the courts time to rule on their constitutionality.
Yesterday, however, Oberdorfer abruptly summoned lawyers for the department and the environmental groups back to his courtroom after learning that the agency was prepared to sign the North Dakota leases on Sept. 30, a month earlier than the department's lawyers had indicated. On that faster track, the judge said, the leases could be issued before the court ruling, possibly rendering the case moot.
The accelerated schedule also would allow the Interior Department to issue the leases one day before a proposed moratorium on federal coal leasing takes effect, if passed by the Senate. The Senate is to vote Monday on the measure, which passed the House last summer.
"I didn't look at the fine print on what I took to be the government's bond," Oberdorfer said of the apparent speedup in the leasing schedule since last week's hearing. ". . . What happened yesterday and today makes me fearful that I will not be an effective custodian of the case if I continue to be a nice guy."
Oberdorfer said that on Monday he will issue a 10-day temporary restraining order, barring the issuance of the North Dakota leases until Sept. 29. He said he will hear arguments on the constitutional question before then.
Oberdorfer's ruling added fuel to a growing controversy over Watt's coal leasing program, which has been under congressional fire for several months. Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office reported that Watt had sold leases to more than 1 billion tons of coal in Montana and Wyoming for more than $100 million less than their value.
Soon afterward, the Senate came within three votes of imposing a moratorium on coal leasing that would have barred the North Dakota sale. Instead, Congress instructed Watt to appoint an independent commission to examine whether his leasing program has secured a fair price for its resources. Watt has proposed to lease up to 15 billion tons of coal by 1985.
In Wednesday's sale, mining companies placed bids on only 140 million of the 540 million tons that the Interior Department placed on the market. Only five coal tracts received bids, four of them from the same company, and all were within $10 of the $100-per-acre minimum price set by the government.
Watt said he was not disappointed by the slack bidding, stressing that the coal in the region is extremely low grade. Since the five tracts received only one bid apiece, Interior Department officials said they would be able to process the bids more quickly than anticipated.
Government lawyers, who argued strenuously against Oberdorfer's order, said later that it will not affect the leases because the department did not intend to issue them until Sept. 30. If the Interior Department wins the case, it can go forward with that schedule, unaffected by the proposed moratorium.
But attorneys for the environmentalists said Oberdorfer could instead extend the restraining order past Oct. 1. If the Senate passes the moratorium, the department would be barred from issuing the leases until the Watt-appointed commission makes its findings, or at least through 1983.
"Secretary Watt apparently intended to end run Congress and the legal process," said Norman Dean, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, which filed the case along with the Wilderness Society. "The judge has put a stop to that."
Officials at the Interior Department's coal-leasing program could not be reached for comment.