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Noble Discoverer slips moorings

One of the drillships that Shell plans to use in a controversial Arctic drilling programme slipped off its moorings and drifted to the edge of shore in Alaska's Aleutian islands over the weekend.

The 152-metre Noble Discoverer, contracted by Shell to drill exploration wells in the remote Chukchi Sea off north-west Alaska, drifted in windy conditions on Saturday afternoon to within 91 meters of shore in an Aleutian bay, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis told Reuters.

A tug towed the ship back to its mooring site, and the Discoverer was re-anchored, she told the news agency, adding that winds were gusting up to 56 kilometres per hour at the time.

The ship's crew did not feel any shuddering or other indications of impact, Francis said. "It was extremely close to shore. But the initial indications were that the vessel wasn't actually aground," Francis was quoted as saying.

A remotely-operated vehicle inspected the hull on Sunday and found no damage.

Shell has sent for divers to inspect the hull over the next few days "to be sure there's no issue with the integrity" of the ship, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith told Reuters.

Environmentalists and some Alaska Native groups have been adamantly opposed Shell's Arctic drilling plans, citing risks of oil spills and other accidents in the harsh Arctic environment, Reuters reported.

Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, told Reuters the Discoverer mishap in relatively sheltered Dutch Harbor bodes ill for operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Discoverer was 1609 kilometres south of its Chukchi Sea destination.

"The conditions in the Arctic are far more harsh, far more extreme," Epstein told the news agency. "When you're out in the Arctic, the consequences are enormous when things go wrong."

A local website, the Dutch Harbor Telegraph, reported that the ship bumped the beach near a big hotel. The local public radio station, KUCB, said the ship appears to have run aground. Both news organisations posted photographs on their websites showing the ship nosing the shore.

The Discoverer is among a fleet of ships Shell is amassing to travel to Arctic waters in the next weeks. The company plans to drill up to three exploration wells in the Chukchi and up to two in the Beaufort, off Alaska's northern coast.

The Discoverer's drifting incident is the latest in a series of recent problems encountered by Shell as it prepares to kick off its Arctic exploration campaign.

Plans to start drilling this month have already been delayed until Augustby unexpected thick pack ice.

US regulators have required all operations in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to stop by 31 October. Drilling into hydrocarbon-bearing zones in the Chukchi must cease by late September, making the drill schedule there especially tight, Reuters reported.

Shell's Smith told Reuters it was unclear whether the company will have the time this year to drill all three wells planned in the Chukchi Sea.

"We're going to have to recalibrate our expectations in the near future and make the most of the time that we do have," Smith said. But the Discoverer problem in Dutch Harbor was not expected to delay drilling, he added.

"The Disco (the ship) is once again moored and taking on supplies in preparation for a late-July departure," he said.