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Shell drillship may have legal troubles on horizon

Ben Anderson
U.S. Coast Guard photo

The operator of the drill ship Noble Discoverer -- a 571-foot vessel crucial to Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in the waters off Alaska's Arctic coast -- may face legal sanctions related to safety and pollution issues discovered by the Coast Guard during the ship's return from the Arctic in November 2012, according to a report from Reuters.

The Noble Discoverer was held by the Coast Guard in the Southcentral Alaska port of Seward on Nov. 29 when the drill ship was towed into port following a problem with its propulsion system. Coast Guard inspectors boarded the vessel and discovered some "pretty serious" issues, a spokesman for the agency said at the time. The ship was cleared to leave port beginning on Dec. 19, though it still needed to be towed for repairs that were originally to be performed in Washington state but will now take place in Asia. The Noble Discoverer will eventually be towed across the Pacific Ocean along with Shell's other primary drilling rig, the Kulluk, which was grounded on a beach south of Kodiak Island on New Year's Eve where it remained for several days until it could be towed to a safer location.

Reuters reported that the Coast Guard investigation into the Noble Discoverer's woes had been handed off to the Alaska U.S. Attorney's Office, which will then determine whether or not to bring criminal charges against the contractor in charge of the ship's operation, Noble Corp.

Mechanical issues plaguing the Noble Discoverer were brought to light last Friday in a letter from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., to Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum. Among the issues noted by the Coast Guard's inspectors were "improper wire splices" in the main engine room and "abnormal propeller shaft vibration" necessitating the ship's tow in Seward, according to Markey's letter. In all, Markey said that the inspection turned up 16 violations aboard the Noble Discoverer.

The Noble Discoverer has been plagued by mishaps since it arrived in Alaska less than a year ago as part of Shell's Arctic exploration program. While waiting for stubborn sea ice to clear out of the Bering Sea last July, the vessel lost anchor and drifted close to shore in Unalaska. Returning to Dutch Harbor after the drill season concluded, the ship backfired while in port, causing black smoke to pour from the vessel's rig stack, which Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith called "a minor issue" at the time. A week later, the propulsion system issue led to the Noble Discoverer's tow to Seward.

The potential for legal action over these issues raises additional questions about Shell's capabilities during the upcoming 2013 Arctic drilling season.

"It is imperative that any drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean occur with the highest levels of safety and environmental protections in place, and I am not convinced that these levels can ever be met given the extreme weather conditions and Shell's performance thus far," Markey said in his letter.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com