updated 3/11/2006 10:21:03 PM ET 2006-03-12T03:21:03

Environmental groups are suing the Interior Department to block expanded oil and gas exploration in an ecologically sensitive area of Alaska’s North Slope.

The 18-page lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Juneau focuses on the government’s decision in January to allow drillers to lease previously closed acreage in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The Bush administration’s decision opens up 389,000 acres for leasing, giving drillers a chance to find and produce an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the tundra north and east of Teshekpuk Lake.

The plaintiffs contend the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, violated the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws in failing to properly analyze the potential impacts of oil and gas activity in a region that is a magnet for thousands of migratory geese.

They contend the agency paid inadequate attention to the potential for industrial sprawl that could chop up an Arctic haven for animals of great importance to subsistence hunters.

The bureau said its leasing plan includes protections for the region’s wildlife, including migratory black brant, threatened spectacled and Steller’s eiders and caribou.

Henri Bisson, the bureau’s Alaska chief, said he couldn’t comment because he hadn’t read the lawsuit. He said the agency is confident it can lease the land and protect wildlife. The agency plans to hold a lease sale in late September, according to Jody Weil, a BLM spokeswoman.

The government in 1923 set aside the 22 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska for its oil and gas resources. It is located west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

The groups suing are the National Audubon Society, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.

Defendants include outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who resigned Friday.

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