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Massachusetts raises new legal barrier in path of offshore oil drilling leases

Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is taking the Reagan Interior Department to court in an attempt to block the sale of some 6.3 million acres of offshore oil and gas exploration tracts near the Georges Bank fishing grounds.

The move to block the scheduled Sept. 26 lease sale, comes a week and a half after the Interior Department announced its plan to offer 1,138 tracts to oil companies for offshore oil and gas exploration.

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It will be the third time in three proposed lease sales since 1979 that the state has taken the federal government to court over offshore oil exploration.

''We are going to do whatever is necessary to protect that fishery,'' state Environmental Affairs Secretary James S. Hoyte told reporters at a press conference with Governor Dukakis and other state officials at the Boston Fish Pier.

Asked if he had contacted Interior Secretary William Clark to attempt to arrange a compromise, Dukakis said, ''I don't hold much hope that further conversation will make that much difference.''

He added, ''It is clear that Interior has its own view on this - and that means the administration does.''

An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the Massachusetts suit until department officials have an opportunity to study it.

The governor had proposed that all tracts in waters shallower than 400 meters be excluded from the proposed lease sale in order to protect the marine ecosystem at Georges Bank, which is the mainstay of the New England fishing industry.

The Interior Department, in an apparent partial compromise, deleted some of the proposed tracts in waters shallower than 400 meters.

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But Interior officials decided to keep in the lease sale 149 of the shallower tracts that were of high interest to oil companies.

Massachusetts officials have accused the Interior Department of favoring oil industry interests at the expense of environmental concerns.

Interior officials say other tracts of high interest to oil companies were deleted from the sale in an effort to strike a balance between concern over the well-being of the fishery and the national need to develop new domestic sources of oil and gas.

A spokesman for Shell Oil Company, one of five firms whose current exploration leases on Georges Bank will expire this year, declined to indicate the company's level of interest in the offshore area. But he added, ''We believe that some of the acreage deleted (from the lease sale) includes tracts that would have received bids from the oil industry.''

Massachusetts was expected to file by week's end in US District Court, Boston , for an injunction to block the lease sale.

The state attorney general's office will be joined in the action by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which has participated the state's other legal challenges over offshore oil exploration.

''Over and over again we have asked for protection of the fishery and time and time again Interior plans more lease sales in this very fragile, productive area,'' says Emily Bateson of the CLF.

''This is siege leasing at its worst,'' says CLF Executive Director Douglas Foy. ''Each Georges Bank lease sale is more massive than the last, despite dwindling oil estimates.

''Interior's 'bigger is better' leasing philosophy is apparently blinding them to their duty to protect our nation's fishery resources.''

The Massachusetts suit is expected to focus on two legal issues: that the federal government failed to offer viable alternatives to its lease sale proposal, and that Interior erred under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act by not accepting in total Dukakis's proposal to limit exploration to tracts deeper than 400 meters.

In addition to those two issues, the Conservation Law Foundation is expected to argue that the proposed lease sale threatens several endangered whale species and thus violates the Endangered Species Act.

The suit is seen as offering potential political ammunition in this presidential election year. Dukakis, a Democrat, is a loyal supporter of Walter Mondale. One state official said the law suit ''is a forum to open up and fire away at the environmental policies of the Reagan administration.''

The Georges Bank region was first opened up for oil exploration in 1979. Five firms leased 63 tracts.

Eight exploratory wells were subsequently drilled, all in waters of 200 meters or less. None contained commercial quantities of oil or gas.

Interior officials say that in the program that monitored the drilling of the first eight wells, ''no significant adverse effects to biological resources were observed that could be attributed to oil and gas activities.''

In deciding to include the 149 tracts in the current lease sale, Interior concluded that ''the potential net loss to the citizens of Massachusetts from offering blocks in water depths of 400 meters or less is relatively small, while the potential benefit to the nation, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts , is substantial.''

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