Denver — ''If successful, it will be the most notorious Interior Department action since Teapot Dome,'' asserts Helen Waller forcefully.
The Montana rancher is referring to the Reagan administration's recent changes in, and acceleration of, the federal coal-leasing program.
Her reaction may be somewhat overstated. The Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s involved corruption of high federal officials. But her response illustrates the considerable furor the leasing program is raising in Western coal areas and among environmental groups.
The shift in federal policy was dramatized last week by the largest sale of coal leases in US government history. The Interior Department auctioned rights to 1.5 billion tons of coal in the Powder River Basin in northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. This was triple the amount of the largest previous sale, held in 1971.
In return, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) netted a record $54.6 million despite little competitive bidding. Additionally, the federal government will split a 12.5 percent royalty with the respective states on all coal that is eventually mined.
''Even though the price of crude oil is currently down, we want to get the coal into the hands of the private sector because it takes so long (12 to 15 years) to put these mines into operation,'' says Ed Essertier, a staff assistant to Interior Secretary James G. Watt. ''It is a necessary basis for the development of a synthetic fuels industry and we may face another energy crisis sometime in the future.''
Two more large coal tracts are scheduled to go on the block next month in Utah.
Currently, coal is being mined on only 18 percent of the outstanding coal leases, but the Interior Department has estimated that production on these lands will increase rapidly in the next few years.
The controversial coal-leasing policy is consistent with Mr. Reagan's pledges to spur domestic coal production by opening more federal coal lands and to ease environmental and other regulatory restraints to which the industry has long objected.
When it was announced last December, the policy was greeted with concern by officials from Western coal-producing states. They said it would make it harder to handle the socioeconomic impact of energy activities in rural areas. They also pointed out that the plan risked violating federal environmental laws.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and two other environmental groups responded to the auction in court.
Frances (Kelly) Green of NWF explains that the group is challenging the sale's legality on two major points: the failure to conduct comprehensive land-use planning for the basin--specifically not considering the agricultural value of the land--and not applying reclamation standards to the tracts. This last point, critics say, led to leasing of some of the most difficult areas to reclaim.
Interior Department spokesmen decline to discuss specific charges, except to say that a complete environmental impact statement was prepared and that they have complied with all applicable laws.
Some administration critics, such as Mrs. Waller, say the sale is a blatant giveaway because the nation's coal production capacity substantially exceeds current demand. Government spokesmen say their $25-per-acre minimum bid assured a fair price.
She also criticizes the federal government for not enforcing due-diligence requirements. These attempt to guard against speculation by requiring leaseholders to develop the resource within a certain time. According to Mr. Essertier, the Interior Department has drafted stiffer due-diligence requirements to go into effect this summer.