The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, challenges the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement's approval in August of Shell's blueprint for the Beaufort drilling, the Houston Chronicle reports.
Shell plans to start work on two exploratory wells in Beaufort as early as next summer and two more the following year but it still needs several other approvals, including U.S. Department of Interior drilling permits.
The proposed Beaufort site is 16 to 23 miles off the coast of northern Alaska. Shell also proposes to drill six wells in the nearby Chukchi Sea.
The lawsuit comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued final air quality permits Sept. 19 to Shell for exploration in the two seas.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service (renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement) estimates that the two Arctic seas hold up to 19 billion barrels of oil and up to 74 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The groups question Shell's ability to clean up any oil spills from remote and slushy Arctic waters, noting that the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away.
"Both Shell and the federal government are proceeding as if the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster -- the worst environmental catastrophe this country has ever seen -- simply didn't happen," said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife in a statement.
"Pretending there's no risk associated with drilling, especially in the fragile waters of the Arctic, is not only irresponsible, it's unacceptable."
Shell has maintained that a blowout of the type that occurred at Deepwater Horizon would be highly unlikely in Alaska, mostly because the Arctic project would be carried out in shallower water -- 110-125 feet compared with Deepwater Horizon's 5,000 feet -- and at a much lower well pressure.
"If you liked the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, you will love Shell's plan for Alaska," said Mike Daulton, vice president of government relations for the National Audubon Society.
"Shell has never demonstrated the ability to effectively clean up a large oil spill in the Arctic Ocean."
"In addition to the usual problems handling a major spill, Alaska has huge ocean waves, gale force winds and widespread sea ice. A major oil spill in Alaska would be Deepwater Horizon meets the Titanic," Daulton said.