Shell’s Arctic Ocean drilling contractor pleads guilty to 8 felonies

Most of Noble Drilling’s environmental and safety violations involved the Noble Discoverer drill ship, shown here while ported in Seward, Alaska.

Shell’s disastrous 2012 drilling season in the Arctic Ocean looks worse than ever now that one of its major contractors has agreed to plead guilty to eight felonies committed during that year’s work.

Noble Drilling LLC, which operated the Noble Discoverer drill ship and the Kulluk drill rig, now admits environmental and safety violations that involved equipment failures, incomplete and false records, using illegal equipment and failing to inform the U.S. Coast Guard of problems.

As part of the plea agreement, the company will pay $12.2 million in fines and community service payments. Noble also will be on probation for four years and have to implement a comprehensive environmental compliance program.

Shell told reporters it was “disappointed” by Noble’s actions. But Shell plans to return the Noble Discoverer – the vessel involved in most of the violations – to Alaska next summer.

It is unclear if Shell or Noble will be subject to additional enforcement as a result of the U.S. Coast Guard report issued in April 2014 on the Kulluk’s grounding near Kodiak Island. Joseph Servido, U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral and assistant commandant for prevention policy wrote in the report, "I will ensure that these potential violations are thoroughly investigated by the Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection, Western Alaska, and as applicable, at other Coast Guard sectors."

For individuals, admitting felonies usually involves prison time and makes it hard for a person to find work for the rest of his life.

For Shell’s contractor, however, pleading guilty to felonies mostly involves paying fines, probationary time and promising to do better in the future. It’s also potentially going right back to work. These are the companies we’re supposed to trust with drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean?

The Arctic Ocean is one of the most challenging environments in the world. The region lacks the infrastructure to support a major oil-spill response, and Shell has no ability to recover significant amounts of oil spilled in the ocean.

But it wants to use a ship operated by a company with a proven record of cutting corners and breaking environmental and safety laws.

That’s not good enough. Not even close.

Please tell the federal government to halt drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean.

Let’s stop the next offshore oil-spill disaster before it happens.