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How did Shell lose control of the Noble Discoverer drill rig?

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July 26, 2012

Workers view the Shell Oil drilling ship 'Noble Discoverer' as it nears the shore at Dutch Harbor. Shell says the rig dragged its anchor in a '"stiff breeze" but did not run aground. The incident raises serious concerns about the company's plans to drill in the fragile Arctic environment.

© James Mason

When Shell lost control of its drill rig Noble Discoverer last week near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, many wondered, How on earth could they have let that happen? Shell spokespeople in Anchorage claimed that the vessel drifted near shore, despite numerous eyewitness accounts that the ship ran aground and became stuck until a tug boat pulled it free. Photographs quickly emerged that call Shell’s claims into question.

Shell Drill Ship Drifts to Alaskan Shore

It’s no surprise that a huge oil company bent on profits from Arctic drilling would mount a desperate effort to control public perception of such an accident. But because this happened in a protected harbor instead of miles from shore, Shell’s dubious claims must contend with eyewitnesses, photographs, journalists, and a US Coast Guard investigation. So far, the Coast Guard has said that, While the vessel master reported he did not believe the vessel grounded, this cannot be confirmed by the Coast Guard at this time and media accounts state that the investigation may take weeks or months.

However, key questions remain about the scope of the Coast Guard’s investigation. The Obama administration’s top official on offshore drilling, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, recently said that if Shells plans for Arctic drilling move forward, “it will be done under the most watched program in the history of the United States.” So the captain of the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, which is currently in Alaska to study the marine habitats where Shell hopes to drill this summer, has requested details from the Coast Guard about its investigation of the loss of control of the Noble Discoverer. These questions include:

  • Although much attention has focused on the dispute between eyewitnesses who observed the Noble Discoverer run aground and Shells claim that it did not, a more serious concern is that an uncontrolled drift occurred in the first place. Will the Coast Guards investigation address concerns that improper or unsafe procedures on board the Noble Discoverer contributed to the loss of control?
  • The Noble Discoverer was built in 1966 as a log-carrying vessel, and converted ten years later to a drillship.The drilling rig was then modified for Arctic work in 2010, including preparing the drilling equipment for operations in the cold, and the addition of a double skin to the hull. These modifications mean that the additional weight and increased wind resistance of the drilling derrick and equipment could mean increased stress for which the vessels anchor system, engine, and other systems were not designed. Will the Coast Guards investigation address concerns that the Noble Discoverers modifications from a 46 year old log carrying vessel contributed to the loss of control?
  • Shell has claimed that the loss of control of its drill rig in a protected harbor is not relevant to its plans for Arctic drilling, because the anchor system that failed near Dutch Harbor is different than the heavier anchor system used during drilling operations. However, the Noble Discoverer’s heavier anchor system also failed last year off the coast of New Zealand. Although Shell claims that one anchor broke, Maritime New Zealand’s account of the incident makes clear that several anchor lines broke during a storm. Will the Coast Guards investigation address previous failures of the Noble Discovers anchoring systems?
  • Eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence call into question Shells claims that the Noble Discoverer merely “drifted toward land and stopped very near the coast.” Media accounts report that radio transmissions from the operator of the tugboat that pulled the vessel from shore acknowledge it had run aground. Running aground could mean damage to critical systems including the rudder, propellers and drilling derrick. Will the Coast Guards investigation include photographic evidence and interviews with eyewitnesses and inspections of all potentially damaged components of the Noble Discoverer?
  • Will the full results and images from the investigation be made public?
  • Is the US Coast Guard still confident in the ability of the Shell fleet this summer?

As Shell breaks more and more promises in its rush to drill in the Arctic, we hope the Coast Guard will conduct a thorough and detailed investigation, and demonstrate the Obama administration’s promise of the most watched program in the history of the United States.

Shell Drill Ship Drifts to Alaskan Shore

Photos: James Mason.

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