WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard has found serious safety and environmental violations on a Shell drilling rig used in the Arctic waters off Alaska, another blow to the company’s controversial bid to harvest oil in the petroleum-rich but sensitive region.
The Coast Guard said Friday that it has turned over the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice, which had no comment.
The Coast Guard found 16 violations on the Noble Discoverer, one of Shell’s two drilling rigs for Alaska’s Arctic waters. The company’s other rig, the Kulluk, has its own troubles. The Kulluk broke free from towlines during a New Year’s Eve storm and was grounded for several days off Kodiak Island.
Details of the Noble Discoverer’s violations were obtained by Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee, which had asked the Coast Guard for an accounting of inspections that took place on the rig at the end of November.
“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,” Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the committee, wrote Friday to Shell’s president.
The Coast Guard found the Noble Discoverer could not go fast enough to safely maneuver on its own in all the expected conditions found in Alaska’s Arctic waters.
The Coast Guard also found “systematic failure and lack of main engine preventative maintenance,” which caused a propulsion loss and exhaust system explosion.
Among other issues listed were inoperable equipment used to measure the oil in water that is dumped overboard, improper line splices throughout the engine room, piston cooling water contaminated with sludge and an abnormal propeller shaft vibration.
Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said he couldn’t discuss the details because the investigation has been forwarded to the Justice Department. Wadlow declined to say whether the Coast Guard believed criminal penalties could be warranted.
Wadlow said the investigation started after the Noble Discoverer had problems with its propulsion system while pulling into the port of Seward, Alaska, in late November.
“The inspectors found several discrepancies dealing with the ship’s pollution prevention equipment as well as several crew safety issues,” he said.
The Noble Discoverer is a converted log carrier owned and operated by Noble Corp. for Shell’s Arctic efforts. The 514-foot-long rig was built in 1966 and converted into a drilling ship 10 years later. It has been upgraded and refurbished to work in the Arctic at a cost of $193 million.
A spokesman for Noble Corp. did not return a message Friday asking about the violations.
Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Friday that Noble Corp. already has resolved many of the issues the Coast Guard raised. Smith also emphasized that the problems with the main propulsion system surfaced after the rig had left the Chukchi Sea drilling area.
“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,” Smith said in an email. “Had that been the case, we would have ceased all operations immediately.”
The Noble Discoverer and Shell’s other Arctic rig, the Kulluk, will be towed to Asia for inspection and repairs. “The 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.
Both of the rigs were only able to drill a partial well apiece during a 2012 exploratory season troubled by equipment failures. It’s not clear whether Shell will be able to return to drill in the Arctic this year even if the rigs are repaired in time. The Interior Department has launched a review of Shell’s operations, and investigations are underway over the grounding of the Kulluk.
The Noble Discoverer dragged its anchor and nearly grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, before the start of its drilling work.