Arctic Drill Ship Violations go to DoJ

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 @ 05:02 PM gHale

Drilling offshore in the Arctic has to be a precise and clean endeavor for the companies trying to pull oil out of the rich, fertile environment.

So, the idea the U.S. Coast Guard found 16 violations on the 571-foot Noble Discoverer drill ship after it completed drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northern coast does present a problem.

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As a result of the violations, the Coast Guard turned over its investigation to the Department of Justice, officials said.

The Coast Guard found the violations when the Noble Discoverer was in dock in Seward, AK. The violations included fire hazards and problems with the propulsion system that didn’t allow the ship to operate at a sufficient speed at sea to safely maneuver in all expected conditions.

Meanwhile, Shell’s other Arctic drill barge, the Kulluk, remains in a sheltered bay off Alaska’s Kodiak Island, where officials towed it after grounding on New Year’s Eve.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who oversees Alaska operations, recommended the investigation forward to the U.S. attorney’s office, said Lt. Veronica Colbath, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Officials at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and ship owner Noble Corp. in Sugar Land, TX, which leases the ship to Shell, were not immediately available.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA sent a letter to Shell President Marvin Odum asking how the company plans to address problems and what changes they will institute as they move forward.

“The reports that Shell may have been drilling this summer using a drill ship with serious deficiencies in its safety and pollution control equipment raise additional and continued questions about whether Shell is able to drill safely offshore in the Arctic, and raises serious questions regarding the nature and adequacy of Shell’s compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” Markey wrote to Odum.

Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, said the company took care of many of the issues raised by the Coast Guard.

“Of course, we take any deficiency very seriously, including those associated with the main propulsion system that surfaced after the Noble Discoverer had transited out of the Chukchi Sea. At no time was the Noble Discoverer found or believed to be a danger to people or the environment while drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012. Had that been the case, we would have ceased all operations immediately,” he said.

The Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk will go to Asia for further inspection and repairs.

It wasn’t immediately clear how this will affect the company’s drilling plans in the Arctic.

“We have not made any final decision on 2013 drilling in Alaska. The Kulluk and Noble Discoverer’s return to Alaska will be dictated by the scope of work identified while in dry dock and the timeline associated with that work,” Smith said.

The Noble Discoverer completed preliminary drilling in early October at one well of the Burger-A Prospect 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. It experienced a vibration problem in its propulsion system after leaving the Chukchi Sea, and an inspection in the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor was inconclusive. The vibration problem increased, Smith said at the time, as the vessel continued to Seward, a Prince William Sound port about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage.

After summer exploration in the Beaufort Sea, the Kulluk ran aground on New Year’s Eve near Kodiak Island as workers were towing it Seattle for maintenance and it broke free in a storm. Workers ended up refloating it and taking it to a sheltered harbor. Once weather improves, they will tow Kulluk to Dutch Harbor, then prepare it for a dry tow transport to Asia.

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