By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A coalition of environmental groups on Monday announced plans to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn federal approvals for Royal Dutch Shell's planned exploration drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska.
The 10 groups said they had prepared a lawsuit to be filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
The lawsuit will seek to overturn approvals of Shell's oil-spill plans that were granted in February and March by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
The lawsuit is aimed at stopping planned drilling of up to two wells in the Beaufort Sea and up to three in the Chukchi Sea starting later this summer, the groups said. Those icy regions are too vulnerable to allow drilling to proceed, the groups said.
"We have been forced to court to make sure the Arctic Ocean is protected and Shell is prepared, as mandated by law. BSEE rubber-stamped plans that rely on unbelievable assumptions, include equipment that has never been tested in Arctic conditions, and ignore the very real possibility that a spill could continue through the winter," the groups said in a joint statement.
The planned lawsuit is the latest challenge Shell faces as it prepares to start a drilling program planned several years ago.
A spokesman for Shell in Alaska said the company was confident that the approval of its oil spill response plans would withstand any legal review.
"These approvals are a testament to the huge amount of time, technology, and resources we have dedicated to an Arctic oil spill response fleet that is second to none in the world. If we were not absolutely confident that we could execute a responsible exploration program, we would not be here," Curtis Smith, spokesman for Shell in Alaska, said via email.
Shell spent more than $2 billion between 2005 and 2008 acquiring leases in federal waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi. The company says it has now spent about $4.5 billion on its offshore Alaska program. Up to now, drilling had been stymied by negative court rulings, regulatory changes made after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the revocation of a key air-quality permit.
But Shell's exploration plans now have nearly all of the required government approvals and the general support of the Obama administration.
Most of the 22-vessel fleet Shell has mobilized to conduct the drilling program is en route to the Alaska destinations. One of the two drill ships Shell will use, the Noble Discoverer, reached the Aleutian port of Unalaska over the weekend.
Shell had expected to start drilling this month, but thicker-than-expected pack ice has slowed the schedule. The company now expects to start drilling in early August, a spokesman said last week.
Federal approvals require that Shell complete its operations in both theaters by October 31.
Shell plans to return to the same sites during next year's ice-free season to drill a similar number of wells.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Ed Davies)