By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups on Tuesday urged the U.S. government not to grant Royal Dutch Shell final permits for Arctic oil exploration after an icebreaker with safety equipment to cap wells was put out of action.
Ten groups, including Oceana, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, said in a letter that under Shell's exploration plans, the U.S. Interior Department cannot allow it to begin exploring for oil in the Chukchi Sea off northern Alaska while the icebreaker, the Fennica, is unavailable.
Shell is sending the Fennica to Portland, Oregon for repairs after crew discovered a 39 inch (1 meter) gash on the ship's hull last week. It is believed that a shoal caused the rip, even though the Fennica was in charted waters.
The company is hoping to return to Arctic drilling later this month for the first time since 2012, when it lost control of an oil rig forcing an evacuation of 18 workers in high seas by the Coast Guard. The Kulluk rig grounded and had to be scrapped.
"Shell's continuing problems make clear that the company has not remedied the systemic deficiencies made evident in 2012 and the (Interior Department) should not grant further approvals," the letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.
The Fennica, one of two icebreakers Shell is leasing, contains a capping stack, or emergency equipment that could contain a blown-out well. Shell is sending nearly 29 ships to the Chukchi and has spent about $7 billion on Arctic drilling. It hopes to start producing oil offshore in 10 or 15 years.
On Monday, Shell said it can proceed with preparatory drilling in the Chukchi before the Fennica returns to the region as long as it does not go to the undersea zone that contains oil and gas. The company had no comment on Tuesday about the letter.
Shell needs the two final authorizations, called applications for permits to drill, from the Interior Department before starting this season.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Andrew Hay)