A U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles yesterday halted Friday's scheduled leasing of 24 tracts off the coast of Southern California for oil and gas development.

California officials had filed suit to exempt the tracts from the Interior Department's sale, saying exploration there would threaten environmentally sensitive areas of the outer continental shelf and pose other risks.

Justice Department attorney Peter Steenland, who represented Interior, said he would try to overturn Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall's preliminary injunction in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In her opinion, Hall said, "While the court recognizes the strong public interest in developing domestic oil and gas resources, the balance of hardships in this case tips in the plaintiff's favor."

"It's a good victory for us . . . to preserve the integrity of our coast," said Michael L. Fischer, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

He said the disputed tracts lie off the scenic Malibu beaches, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Orange County near marine sanctuaries and shipping lanes.

In a related development, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno said Tuesday that Interior could lease two tracts in the Santa Barbara channel that Pauley Petroleum Corp., a consortium of oil companies, wanted exempted.

Pauley won those tracts in a 1960s lease sale, but could not complete its exploration plans because of a moratorium imposed after a major oil spill in the channel.

The Pauley group had tried to block the sale of the tracts while it pleads in Congress to regain the leases.