Company that operated Arctic drill ship agrees to plead to maritime, environmental crimes

JUNEAU, Alaska – A company that operated a drill ship off Alaska’s Arctic coast has agreed to plead guilty to environmental and maritime crimes as part of a deal with prosecutors.

The agreement calls for Noble Drilling U.S. LLC to plead guilty to eight felony counts and pay an $8.2 million fine, plus $4 million in community service payments.

The charges and the agreement, which must be approved by a judge, were made public Monday.

Noble operated the drill ship Noble Discoverer and the drill unit Kulluk in support of efforts by Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill offshore in 2012.

According to the agreement, Noble Drilling’s violations included keeping false records or failing to record details surrounding its handling of oil on the vessels, and failing to notify the U.S. Coast Guard of hazardous conditions aboard the Noble Discoverer.

“During 2012, the Noble Discoverer experienced numerous problems with its main propulsion system, including its main engine and its propeller shaft, resulting in engine shut-downs, equipment failures and unsafe conditions,” according to the plea agreement. “At times, the condition of the Noble Discoverer’s main engine also created high levels of exhaust in the engine room, multiple sources of fuel and oil leaks, and backfires.”

One of the factors that led to charges was an inspection of the Noble Discoverer by the Coast Guard in Seward in late 2012, said Kevin Feldis, first assistant U.S. attorney in Anchorage. The vessel had been towed to port after experiencing propulsion problems, court records state.

Feldis said the charges are not related to the grounding of the Kulluk, which occurred on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska on New Year’s Eve 2012 after the drill unit had broken free from its tow in bad weather.

Noble Drilling has co-operated with the investigation since Nov. 26, 2012 — when the Noble Discoverer arrived in Seward under dead ship tow — and the company instituted new training of employees in North America, according to the plea agreement.

Noble Drilling’s parent company, Noble Corp., said in a news release that the charges relate mainly to deficiencies and maintenance issues on the Noble Discoverer that have been addressed during renovation and modernization work on the rig.

The company said it took responsibility for its actions and many of its own initiatives were included in an environmental compliance plan stipulated by the agreement.

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said the case speaks to the dangers of drilling in the Arctic, calling it “unsafe, dangerous and irresponsible to drill there.”