- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 14, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Ten environmental groups say a missing icebreaker should be a deal-breaker for Arctic offshore drilling by Royal Dutch Shell PLC off Alaska’s northwest coast.

The groups in a letter Tuesday called on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reject permits sought by Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea because of the absence of the 380-foot icebreaker Fennica while it undergoes repairs.

The icebreaker is a key part of Shell’s exploration plan and spill response plan, said attorney Mike LeVine of Oceana.

“The Fennica plays an important role in protecting the entirety of Shell’s fleet from ice,” he said. “Without that protection, the oceans are at additional risk.”

Arctic offshore drilling is strongly opposed by environmental groups that say oil drilling is too risky in a fragile environment that features brutal storms and sea ice.

The Fennica was damaged July 3 near Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. As it sailed under the direction of a registered state marine pilot, the ship struck an underwater obstruction that created a hull gash about 3 feet long and a half-inch wide.

Shell considered making temporary repairs at Dutch Harbor but decided instead to make permanent repairs at a Portland, Oregon, shipyard.

The ship’s primary duty is carrying blowout response equipment, according to Shell. It carries a capping stack that could be placed on an underwater wellhead to stop gushing oil.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Monday drill ships could start work in the Chukchi and the Fennica would not be needed until August when the company drills into hydrocarbon zones about 8,000 feet below the ocean bottom. He had no immediate comment on the letter Tuesday.

The environmental groups say the Fennica’s role in managing ice, including icebergs, cannot be overlooked.

“As with its Exploration Plan, Shell’s Oil Spill Response Plan requires the Fennica to be present to serve this ice management role whether or not Shell is drilling in oil bearing zones,” the groups said.

Shell hopes to begin drilling this month but awaits final permits from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Agency spokesman Guy Hayes did not have an immediate comment on the letter.

Shell has invested upward of $7 billion on leases and exploration expenses.

The groups signing the letter to Jewell are the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, League of Conservation Voters, Oceana, Audubon Alaska, Greenpeace USA, Ocean Conservancy, Natural Resource Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Sierra Club.

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