Coast Guard clears Shell drillship bound for Arctic

WASHINGTON — As one of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs makes its way to Alaska, a second is waiting in the wings.

The Noble Discoverer, now docked in Washington state waters, has received a critical “certificate of compliance” from the U.S. Coast Guard verifying it meets a host of safety and security requirements. Since a May 20 Coast Guard inspection, Shell and Noble cleared more than a dozen violations documented at the vessel.

But it remains unclear when the rig might begin venturing north, with critical federal permits still pending and Shell’s other Arctic rig, the Transocean Polar Pioneer, already en route.

The Coast Guard issued a “certificate of compliance” for the Polar Pioneer on June 14, a day before tugboats began heaving it through Puget Sound and onward to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Related story: Shell rig leaves Seattle for Alaska

There, it is expected to wait for outstanding federal approvals — and at least until July 1 — before it could set sail for Shell’s Burger prospect about 70 miles off the Alaska coastline in the Chukchi Sea.

The Pioneer still has one deficiency that needs to be corrected, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Dana Warr said. Although he did not provide specifics, Warr said the deficiency is not in an area designated as hazardous or a high-priority space.

Shell has asked federal regulators for permits to drill two wells into Burger this summer. Its previous attempt in the Chukchi Sea three years ago left it with a single top hole, penetrating about 1,500 feet down.

Contractor Noble Corp. later pleaded guilty to eight felony charges tied to pollution, propulsion and record keeping problems on the Discoverer drillship that bored that half-finished well.

“We know the Noble Discoverer’s history of failure in Alaska; we know it’s already had some of the same troubles this year,” said Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols. “We also know the Obama administration hasn’t been forthright about the difficulties Shell and its contractors have had preparing their Arctic fleet this spring. The president must take charge of this situation now and stop Shell’s Arctic drilling before it starts.”

Related story: Feds say Shell completed test for blown-out well response

Critical decisions are still in the Obama administration’s hands.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is currently reviewing Shell’s drilling permit applications.

Another outstanding approval is a “letter of authorization” from the Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow Shell’s planned activities to unintentionally disturb walruses, sea otters and other animals in the region.

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