Massachusetts state and environmental officials are expected to decide this week whether to take legal action to try to block the federal sale of up to 6.3 million acres of tracts for oil and gas exploration in New England waters.
State officials say they will closely study US Interior Department plans for oil exploration near the rich Georges Bank fishing grounds before they decide whether to challenge the scheduled Sept. 26 lease sale in court.
The action comes in the wake of the Interior Department's announcement Friday that disclosed for the first time the location of the tracts and the size of the area to be offered for potential oil and gas exploration.
State officials, environmentalists, and New England fishermen have expressed concern about the possible impact of oil exploration on the marine environment around Georges Bank, which is said to be one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world.
Last month Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) asked the Interior Department to exclude all proposed tracts in waters shallower than 400 meters, in order to protect the environment.
The Interior Department, because of Massachusetts' request and the concerns of other states, dropped 2.9 acres of shallow offshore sites from the lease sale. Nonetheless, several tracts in waters shallower than 400 meters were retained in the scheduled lease sale because they were determined to be of high interest to oil companies.
Interior Department officials view the fish vs. oil issue as a policy dilemma that necessitates balancing a state's environmental concerns with the nation's need to shore up domestic oil and gas reserves. The federal officials see oil exploration as a national security measure aimed at reducing American reliance on foreign energy supplies.
They also say there are no conclusive studies identifying adverse environmental impacts in the North Atlantic as a result of oil exploration work - a point the environmentalists concede.
But state officials and environmentalists are concerned that too much exploration proceeding too quickly might negatively affect the fragile marine ecosystem.
''The area is so important for our fishing industry that every precaution that can be taken should be taken to ensure that no . . . harm comes of it,'' says Dukakis spokesman James Dorsey. ''The potential for a week's worth of gas and oil is a very small return for that kind of risk.''
''We are not totally opposed to oil drilling,'' says Dan Greenbaum of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. ''We would like steady, careful exploration - and careful monitoring - so that we can know the impact.''
The lease sale would be the second in New England waters. In December 1979, 660,000 offshore acres were offered, and more than half were leased. Since then, eight wells were drilled (all in water less than 400 meters deep), but none produced commercial quantities of oil or gas.
The Interior Department estimates the lease sale area may contain as much as 140 million barrels of crude oil and 3.1 trillion cubic feet of gas.