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Shell Oil to unveil massive icebreaker

LAROSE, La. — A longtime Shell contractor has nearly completed a massive, customized ice-breaking ship for the company's drilling projects in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

The icebreaker is part of a specialized fleet Shell hopes to deploy for exploration drilling next summer, if it can clear all the legal and regulatory hurdles.

Named the Aiviq, the Eskimo word for walrus, the $200 million, 360-foot steel vessel's main job will be to move anchor lines that will attach drilling rigs to the sea floor in the shallow Arctic. But it's also on standby in case of an oil spill -- it could recover about 10,000 barrels of spilled crude. The ship was designed to cut through ice a meter thick and likely will be able to move through thicker ice, its builder says. It can operate at minus 58 degrees.

Shell points to the ship as evidence that it's serious about drilling in -- and protecting -- the fragile Arctic.

Edison Chouest Offshore is building the ship at its Larose shipyard, North American Shipbuilding.

Edison Chouest is a family-owned company active in the oil business, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Along with affiliated businesses, Edison Chouest builds, owns and operates a fleet of vessels that serves offshore oil field operations, conducts research for the National Science Foundation and engages in other marine activities, its executives say. The company has 9,000 employees around the world.

The firm's president, Gary Chouest, donates thousands of dollars every year to political candidates in Louisiana, Alaska and other states. He has given to the campaigns of U.S. Rep. Don Young and U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.

In the first quarter of this year, he and members of his family used various corporate entities to contribute $60,000 to Young's legal defense fund, according to the congressional newspaper Roll Call. Those contributions are under investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Ethics, according to Young's office. Since 2007, Chouest has donated almost $325,000 to candidates, political action committees and Republican Party organizations, including $20,000 to the Alaska Republican Party, according to the website opensecrets.org.

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