Conservation groups are challenging Shell Oil’s Arctic Ocean drilling program with a lawsuit over the federal government’s approval of the company’s oil spill response plans.

The groups, which include Oceana, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other big-name organizations, say their goal is to set high standards for all drilling in the area. The suit does not try to block Shell from drilling this summer.

Shell plans to drill several experimental oil wells this summer, but unusually heavy sea ice has delayed its start date, originally set for mid-July, to early August. Drilling is only possible in the area for a narrow window of time. Ice will return early in the fall.

Shell has established itself as the major player in Arctic drilling, with  rights to 2 million acres off of Alaska. Lawsuits and permit challenges, along with new spill prevention requirements put in place after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, have delayed its operations.

The environmental groups’ suit argues that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement “rubber-stamped plans that rely on unbelievable assumptions.” It argues that Shell’s cleanup plans depend on equipment that has never been tested in the arctic and ignore the possibility that a spill could continue through the winter, when it would become far more difficult to address.

The Los Angeles Times has editorialized against Shell’s plans, arguing that the government should not have accepted the oil company’s assertion that it would recapture 90 percent of the oil released in any spill.

“That’s a wildly optimistic number, never achieved in a major oil spill, even in much calmer waters than the Arctic’s,” the paper wrote.

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