IMAGE: LAKE TESHEKPUK
Subhankar Banerjee  /  Alaska Wilderness League via AP
Part of Lake Teshekpuk inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is seen last July in this photo provided by the Alaska Wilderness League, which is opposed to drilling in that area of the reserve.
updated 9/22/2006 2:53:39 PM ET 2006-09-22T18:53:39

The Interior Department has agreed to temporarily abandon offering oil leases in an environmentally sensitive area surrounding Lake Teshekpuk on Alaska’s North Slope.

In papers filed in federal court in Anchorage, the department asks the court to give the go-ahead to a broader lease sale next week, while the contentious leases in the lake area undergo further environmental review.

U.S. District Judge James Singleton earlier this month blocked the proposed sale of leases on 8 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, saying that the Bureau of Land Management had not adequately assessed the cumulative environmental impact of the lease sales including those on about 400,000 acres north and east of Lake Teshekpuk.

The government said it still strongly disagrees with Singleton’s conclusion, but asks that the court decision be limited to the leases near the lake, so the rest of the sale can proceed.

“BLM ... believes that the ability to go forward with some leasing in the northeast NPRA is in the public interest,” the government argued. It said leasing on tracts near the lake could be put off “until further analysis has been completed” to resolve the environmental issues raised by the court.

Lawyers for environmental groups, which had filed suit to block the lease sales near the lake, said in separate filings they are not opposed to narrowing the order as long as the lake area remains off limits.

“We’re not opposed to all leases in NPRA We are opposed to oil leases going near Lake Teshekpuk,” said Tony Iallonardo, spokesman for the National Audubon Society, one of the groups that filed the suit.

It’s not known when Singleton will act in response to the latest court filings.

The Interior Department announced in August it was making available 696 tracts on 8 million acres in the northeast and northwest planning areas of the NPRA, a vast area set aside in 1923 for its oil resource.

The leases included nearly 400,000 acres north and east of Lake Teshekpuk, a lagoon-pocked region that environmentalists argue should be free of development to protect caribou and migratory birds.

But the lake area also is believed to have 2 billion barrels of oil and has been eyed by oil companies because of its relatively close proximity to existing development in the Prudhoe Bay area to the east. Most of the other leases in the NPRA are much farther away and less desirable to oil companies.

On Sept. 7, Singleton issued a temporary order blocking the entire lease sale, declaring that the government had not adequately considered the cumulative environmental effects of the leasing in the NPRA, in light of the new leases being offered in the lake area.

The BLM in its filing Thursday continues to argue that restrictions written into those leases — that limit surface disturbance and require corridors for caribou migration — “provide the maximum protection to environmental resources.” And, the agency said, if needed additional protections can be imposed.

But it asked the court to revise its order and limit any injunction to the new leases near Lake Teshekpuk that have been the focus of the environmentalists’ outrage.

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