Coast Guard documented 16 deficiencies on Arctic drillship

The drillship used to bore part of an Arctic oil well for Shell last summer lacked sufficient propulsion power, had engine problems and posed fire hazards, according to a Coast Guard inspection of the vessel in November that was released on Friday.

The deficiencies documented by the Coast Guard were revealed by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., as he asked Shell Oil Co. President Marvin Odum to detail how much the firm knew about the problems and its prospects for restarting Arctic drilling this summer.

The Coast Guard has also turned over its findings from an investigation on board the Discoverer on Nov. 26, 2012, to the Justice Department, which could pursue charges in connection with the deficiencies.

The Coast Guard inquiry began after the ship had propulsion problems while pulling into Seward, Alaska last November. Earlier that month, a fire broke out in the rig stack on the vessel while it was in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. It was swiftly put out by personnel on board the Discoverer and no one was injured.

The drillship now is slated to head to a Korean shipyard for repairs aimed at fixing some of the problems, perhaps as early as next week. Separately, Shell is preparing to send its Kulluk conical drilling unit to a yet-to-be-determined Asian shipyard for work on the hull and electrical systems that were damaged when the rig ran aground on an Alaskan island on New Year’s Eve.

Markey said the problems with the Discoverer raise fresh concerns about Shell’s Arctic drilling program, which suffered a series of high-profile mishaps last year, mostly surrounding the Discoverer and Kulluk. Shell has characterized those blunders — including problems towing the Kulluk through stormy seas and the Discoverer’s brief drifting in Dutch Harbor last year — as maritime incidents not related to its oil exploration in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

“The reports that Shell may have been . . . using a drillship with serious deficiencies in its safety and pollution control equipment raises 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 Odum.

In response, Shell emphasized that it takes “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.”

The drillship was never “found or believed to be a danger to people or the environment while drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012,” Shell said in a statement. “Had that been the case, we would have ceased all operations immediately.”

Noble did not respond to a request for comment. But Noble Corp. said last year it was then working to repair problems with the safety, pollution-control and propulsion systems on the Discoverer after the Coast Guard’s inspection. And Shell said that Noble has already addressed many of the problems raised by the Coast Guard last year.

Coast Guard officials imposed an order detaining the Discoverer until mid-December, as it continued investigating the problems.

A former log carrier, the Discoverer was converted for the oil industry in 1976. Shell renovated the Discoverer and Kulluk in Seattle before using the vessels to bore the first half of two wells in Arctic waters last year.

Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, is asking Odum to say whether Shell believes any of the violations compromised drilling safety or the environment when the Discoverer was boring a well in the Chukchi Sea last year.

He also wants Odum to describe “the procedures that Shell has in place to monitor and detect any safety or environmental deficiencies aboard its Arctic drill rigs and whether those procedures uncovered any of the violations identified by the Coast Guard.”

And, Markey also wants Odum to preview the company’s plans to drill in U.S. Arctic waters again this summer — a prospect that dimmed considerably when Shell acknowledged its two rigs would be heading around the globe for repairs.


According to Markey, the following deficiencies were identified by the Coast Guard in its Nov. 26, 2012 examination of the Noble Discoverer:

1. Objective evidence revealed systematic failure and lack of main engine preventive maintenance, which caused loss of main propulsion and exhaust system explosion. Company audit records were not available, crewmember was not familiar with Ship Safety Management System (SMS). Internal SMS audit required and external recommended. (SOLAS 74 Amend 2009 CE IX/3 & 5, ISM Code Part A/6.2)

2. Observed multiple fire screen doors throughout accommodation spaces that would not self-close. Stairways that penetrate more than a single deck should be surrounded by “A” class divisions & protected by self-closing doors at all levels. (IMO MODU Code1979 9.2.3)

3. Observed multiple fire screen doors throughout accommodation spaces that would not self-close. Stairways which penetrate only a single deck should be protected at least at one level by “A” or “B” Class divisions and self-closing doors so as to limit the rapid spread of fire from one deck to another. (IMO MODU Code 1979 9.2.3)

4. Main engine piston cooling water is contaminated with sludge and oil. Crew skims the oil off with a ladle & bucket during rounds. Main engine ops manual states failure of the telescopic tube packing will cause dirty piston cooling water. Provide Recognized Organization report indicating current procedure/design is adequate for the service intended and reduces danger to persons. (IMO MODU Code 1979 4.1.3)

5. Electrical switchboard on lower level engine room has no non-conducting mats or gratings at the front and rear. (IMO MODU Code 1979 5.5.2)

6. Exhaust system back-fires on regular basis. Chief engineer suspects this is due to change to exhaust system in order to accommodate helicopter deck installation. As a result of back-fires (one of which resulted in a stack fire recently), main propulsion machinery and all auxiliary machinery essential to the propulsion and safety of the unit may be compromised. (IMO MODU Code 1979 7.1.3)

7. Current propulsion arrangement does not result in sufficient speed at sea to safely maneuver in all expected conditions without tow assistance. Recognized Organization to provide report attesting to satisfactory propulsion arrangement during transit mode of operation. Report shall include analysis of safe operation of unit in transit condition in the most severe environmental conditions expected over a 50-year period.

8. A fractured pipe was found passing through the 27- S Bilge Holding tank discharging water into the tank from an unknown source. Recognized Organization shall provide report attesting to the satisfactory repair of existing pipe internal to 27-S holding tank. (MARPOL 73/78 Annex I/6.4.1 (2011 CE))

9. Objective evidence discovered during expanded MARPOL exam revealed oily water separator (OWS) audible and visual alarms and oil content meter (OCM) inoperable. Entire oily water separator system to be examined/serviced as necessary and operation proven. (MARPOL 73/78 2011 CE Annex I/14.6 & 14.7)

10. Discovered fuel oil settling tank converted by crew to a bilge water decanting tank. Modifications included installation of steam piping, steam coil in tank and piping connected to/from bilge water system. Modification was installed without sanction of the Administration. Provide documentation from Recognized Organization of approval and update International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) certificates. (MARPOL 73/78 2011 CE Annex I/6.4.2)

11. Vessel experienced abnormal propeller shaft vibration on November 22, 2012, requiring main engine shutdown and dead ship tow to Port of Seward. Coast Guard inspection revealed vessel also experienced vibration on November 6, 2012, while en route the Port of Dutch Harbor. Design should not cause undue stress in the machinery operating ranges. (IMO MODU Code 1979 7.1.4)

12. Oil mist detectors on main engine cylinders 3 and 6 have broken housings and exposed wires. Machinery should be provided with automatic shut-off arrangements or alarms in the case of failures, which could lead rapidly to complete breakdown, damage, or explosion.(IMO MODU Code 1979 4.2.7)

13. Observed oil soaked structural fire protection insulation in way of exhaust where it transitions to vertical and extending to the lube oil tank. Minimum fire integrity of bulkheads should be as prescribed in table 3 (A-60). (IMO MODU Code 1979 9.1.3.1)

14. Noted addition of a “T” with a ball valve in way of vertical pipe connection inboard of overboard discharge valve downstream of oil content meter. Installation of this arrangement could allow introduction of unprocessed oily water to the environment. Provide Recognized Organization approval for installation modification of arrangement. (MARPOL 73/78 Annex I/15.2 2011 CE)

15. Reviewed deck log finding no evidence of at least one monthly Emergency Evacuation Plan (EEP) drill between September 23, 2012, and October 26, 2012. At least once a month, a drill must be conducted that demonstrates the ability of the facilities personnel to perform their duties and functions on the facility, as those duties and functions are described in the EEP. (33 CFR 146.125(c)(2))

16. Observed multiple dead end wires and improper wire splices throughout main engine room. Electrical installations should be such that the safety of personnel and unit from electrical hazards will be assured. (IMO MODU Code1979 5.1.1.3)