A hard day's questioning

Moira Baird
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Offshore regulator's chief safety officer grilled at inquiry

Lawyers for the families of offshore workers who died March 12 and unionized offshore workers grilled the top safety official with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) Thursday.

Howard Pike, chief safety officer for the CNLOPB, was on the stand for the second day this week at the Wells Inquiry.

Robert Wells

Lawyers for the families of offshore workers who died March 12 and unionized offshore workers grilled the top safety official with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) Thursday.

Howard Pike, chief safety officer for the CNLOPB, was on the stand for the second day this week at the Wells Inquiry.

Randell Earle, the lawyer for the union representing workers at the Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields, questioned Pike on everything from underwater breathing devices to search and rescue services provided by Cougar Helicopters.

It took nine years to introduce underwater breathing devices offshore.

In 2001, the CNLOPB asked the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) to investigate underwater breathing devices for use in the local offshore industry. CAPP represents 130 oil and gas companies in Canada.

"That is not an uncommon practice for other regulators, particularly when you're introducing a new technology, to engage the stakeholders as you move forward with that technology," Pike said. "We've done it successfully.

"Unfortunately, in the HUEBA case, it was not as successful as we would have liked."

(HUEBA stands for helicopter underwater emergency breathing apparatus.)

Offshore workers in Newfoundland were equipped with compressed air cylinders, which provide about two minutes of air, in May 2009.

Earle said getting CAPP to implement underwater breathing devices "amounts to CNLOPB contracting out a significant part of its role to one of the interested parties."

"So, what's the ... the rationale for beyond, 'Well, other people do it'?"

Pike said, "We have done it with other technologies ... and I think we freely admit that this implementation was certainly not a success and it took far too long."

Jamie Martin, who represents the families of offshore workers killed in the helicopter crash, pointed to a March 2007 letter from the CNLOPB.

In the letter, Max Ruelokke, chairman and CEO of the board, asks CAPP for an update on the offshore oil industry's efforts to introduce the underwater breathing devices.

Martin wondered what action the board took afterwards.

"So, if you weren't getting a satisfactory response to your March '07 letter to the agent, CAPP, why wasn't there a followup letter with the companies in the two years leading up to the actual implementation of the device?

"Didn't you think that it would be appropriate, having not gotten an appropriate response from CAPP, to have written the companies between 2007 and 2009?"

Pike replied, "That's certainly another approach that could have been taken, yes."

Under its legislation, the CNLOPB regulates the oil companies, but not organizations such as CAPP.

Martin also pointed to statements Pike made Wednesday when he told the inquiry aviation is outside his regulatory jurisdiction.

Transport Canada regulates helicopter operations offshore, while the CNLOPB regulates the workers travelling in those helicopters. On Wednesday, Pike said that means he can't require Cougar Helicopters to carry out risk assessments on survival suits or helmets for pilots.

"Do you appreciate the fact that people who are not intimate or familiar with the constitutional niceties of this country would be pretty disillusioned to find out that the board regulating offshore safety is hiding behind one of those constitutional niceties in order to prevent a problem from being addressed?" Martin asked.

Pike said it was unfair to characterize the board as hiding behind legislation.

"We have a legislative mandate and we're fulfilling the legislative mandate. That mandate does not include the regulation of helicopters.

"I can appreciate your perspective on that one, but we aren't hiding behind it. It is what it is."

Pike said the board has written to Transport Canada, suggesting they sign a memorandum of understanding to "further safety in the offshore."

During questioning, Earle also recalled Recommendation No. 56 of the Ocean Ranger inquiry report.

It recommended "a full-time, search and rescue dedicated helicopter provided either by government or industry fully equipped to search and rescue standards stationed at the airport nearest to ongoing drilling operations, and that it be readily available with a trained crew able to perform all aspects of the rescue."

Cougar's contract with the oil industry requires a search and rescue (SAR) helicopter that could be in the air in one hour, or less.

That provides time to remove passenger seats, install a rescue hoist and refuel the helicopter.

At one time, the standby helicopter on SAR duty was also permitted to leave St. John's as long as an inbound helicopter was 30 minutes away.

"I take it you would agree with me that that could not be said to meet the standard recommended by the Ocean Ranger inquiry of a full-time search and rescue dedicated helicopter?," Earle asked.

Pike replied: "The standard that that one was meeting was a one-hour wheels-up for SAR. We were given assurance that with that half-hour they would still meet the one hour wheels-up time."

Earle: "Did not meet the Ocean Ranger (inquiry) standard?"

Pike: "The Ocean Ranger (inquiry) had a different standard, yes, sir."

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Wells Inquiry Hibernia Transport Canada

Geographic location: Terra Nova, Canada, Newfoundland St. John's

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