The federal government has opened up 3.9 million acres of Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) for oil and gas drilling, giving oil companies more land to lease as political pressure mounts for expanded domestic production.

Oil companies will be able to obtain leases in October, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which announced the decision yesterday.

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne praised the decision as a move to alleviate high gasoline prices.

"The rapid increase in energy costs facing our nation is driven by a worldwide imbalance in energy supply and demand,

NPR-A sits on Alaska's northern coast near the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), where Republicans are pushing to allow oil drilling.

As oil prices have hit record highs this summer, Republicans have introduced seven bills to open ANWR for drilling, hammering Democrats for gasoline costs and accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of inaction. President Bush lifted the executive order banning new offshore drilling Monday, pressuring Democrats to follow suit and lift Congress's ban.

Of NPR-A's 22.6 million acres, 3 million are already leased by oil companies, and yesterday's decision will more than double the land available for drilling. Known to contain oil deposits, NPR-A was set aside in 1923 as an oil and gas resource.

Under the decision, 2.9 million acres in the reserve's northeast section will be available for drilling, according to the Bureau of Land Management; an estimated 1 million acres will be opened in its northwestern area.