Noble fixing problems on Discoverer after Arctic drilling season

Noble Corp. said Thursday it was working to repair problems with the safety, pollution-control and propulsion systems on its drillship Discoverer, fresh off a tour hunting for Arctic oil for Shell.

The Coast Guard identified the deficiencies and ordered the repairs last month, after the Discoverer encountered propulsion problems while pulling into Seward, Alaska. The problems were flagged about two months after the Discoverer finished drilling the first half of an exploratory well for Shell Oil Co., in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska.

According to Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, when investigators boarded the drillship, they found “several issues with safety and pollution-prevention equipment” that prompted them to order the vessel to stay in the port until those deficiencies were corrected. The detention order was lifted Dec. 19 _ even though some propulsion problems still remain _ so the Discoverer could travel to a dock in Seattle for additional work.

“Our biggest concern is protecting the safety of lives at sea and ensuring that all vessels that are out there are complying with vessel regulations,” Wadlow said. “When our investigators did go on board, they did discover several discrepancies, and that’s why we took this action.”

The Coast Guard’s investigation is still under way.

Noble Corp. said in a statement that its internal review also identified “certain other potential regulatory non-compliance issues, . . . including possible unauthorized collected water discharges outside the period of drilling operations.”

Shell said that six of the problems identified by the Coast Guard have already been fixed and 10 others will be tackled in the Seattle shipyard, where the Discoverer was already slated to undergo work this winter.

This is just the most recent misfortune to befall the 1960s-era Discoverer, following a series of problems this year:

  • In mid November, after drilling ended, 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.
  • This summer, Shell told regulators the ship would not be able to satisfy some terms of a federal air pollution permit governing the Discoverer.
  • And in July, before drilling began, the Discoverer dragged its anchors and briefly floated out of control near Dutch Harbor.

Although oil companies punched nearly three dozen wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas between 1982 and 1997, Shell’s most recent Arctic venture is the first pursuit of crude under those Arctic waters since since the Gulf oil spill focused new scrutiny on the safety of offshore drilling.

The oil industry is closely watching Shell’s performance, with other companies waiting to follow in the firm’s footsteps. ConocoPhillips, Statoil and Repsol all have plans to search for Arctic oil, though Statoil recently said it would wait until 2015 to pursue drilling on its own leases after watching Shell navigate regulatory and natural challenges this year.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company expects the Discoverer will be fully repaired and ready to resume drilling when ice clears next summer. She stressed that the problems “are largely associated with the vessel’s transit equipment and not related to this year’s drilling activities.”

Noble said it was working with Shell and in coordination with the Coast Guard to review the Discoverer’s operations under Arctic conditions “with the intent of further strengthening the readiness of the drillship and other drilling assets for 2013.”

Op de Weegh said many of the problems pinpointed by the Coast Guard were already on track to be addressed during maintenance work in Seattle. “The Noble Discoverer will not deploy for exploration operations until all post-season issues have been corrected,” she said.

Before heading to Alaska, the Discoverer was drilling in New Zealand.

A former log carrier, the Discoverer was converted for the oil industry in 1976.

Critics say it wasn’t built for harsh Arctic conditions — despite hundreds of millions of upgrades for Shell’s program — and that systems on the vessel haven’t been sufficiently upgraded to handle extra windage and load from new equipment on top of the ship.