Retired justice Robert Wells called it his most important recommendation for offshore safety — and it’s going nowhere.
Documents obtained by The Telegram under access to information legislation indicate virtually no substantial work has been done to create an independent safety regulator for the offshore oil and gas industry.
The government of Premier Kathy Dunderdale has insisted repeatedly it wants to see an independent safety regulator, but it can’t do anything unless the federal government is onside.
That’s left the hope for an independent safety regulator languishing for more than a year.
“We’re still hopeful we can work something out with the federal government,” Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy told The Telegram.
“Once the federal government gives us a final no, we will certainly have to look at what other options, if any, are available.”
In March 2009, Cougar Helicopters Flight 491 crashed into the ocean, killing 17 people.
There was one survivor.
When Wells released his inquiry report into the crash in November 2010, he called for an independent safety regulator separate from the Canada-Newfoundland and Lab-rador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), which regulates all aspects of the offshore industry.
Wells called Recommendation 29 — setting up an independent safety regulator — the most important recommendation he made.
In October, The Telegram requested all correspondence between the provincial and federal governments on Wells Inquiry recommendations.
Four months later, The Telegram received 36 heavily redacted pages which seem to indicate little progress towards making substantial changes to the Atlantic Accord, which would need to be amended in both the House of Commons and the House of Assembly to create an independent safety regulator.
When Wells’ report came out, there was a brief flurry of communications between the provincial and federal governments to co-ordinate communications. An official from the federal government sent the province talking points that the federal government would be using.
“The (CNLOPB) is a strong, independent regulator. The board will be reviewing the report’s recommendations carefully,” the talking points said.
Those talking points don’t seem to have changed much in the past year and a half. When federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was in St. John’s earlier this month, he said, “The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board provides the strong, independent regulation we need to ensure Canada’s standards always meet that test.”
Oliver declined to comment for this story, but a statement was provided to The Telegram by the federal Department of Natural Resources.
The statement said the federal government of Canada takes Wells’ recommendations seriously, but is still studying the issue.
“We are currently reviewing the inquiry’s recommendations, in particular those suggesting significant legislative and regulatory changes to Canada’s offshore regime,” the statement from Natural Resources said. “With further review and as necessary, we will take steps in close collaboration with the provinces to continuously improve the safety and environmental performance of Canada’s offshore regime.”
In the 2011 throne speech, Dunderdale promised the government would work to amend the Atlantic Accord to create the independent regulator.
“In the coming year, my government, in concert with the federal government, will also bring forward amendments to the Atlantic Accord Act to implement a new occupational health and safety regime for the offshore,” the throne speech said.
That didn’t happen.
On May 31, then-provincial Natural Resources Minister Shawn Skinner sent Oliver a letter congratulating him on being the newly appointed federal Natural Resources minister.
In the letter, Skinner devotes a paragraph to offshore helicopter safety.
“Our government supports all recommendations including the recommendation to establish a new, independent stand-alone safety regulator, which will require amendments to the federal and provincial Atlantic Accords,” Skinner wrote.
It took Oliver more than two months to respond to the letter.
On Aug. 9, he wrote, “I understand that officials from our respective governments are engaged in formal discussions regarding the implementation of Recommendation 29.”
The documents provided to The Telegram indicate some email exchanges between government officials to discuss that recommendation.
But Oliver’s comment earlier this month, that the CNLOPB provides the “strong, independent regulation we need,” has many people, including Kennedy, saying Ottawa has no real appetite to fulfil Recommendation 29.
“Minister Oliver, I think, last week made it clear that the federal government (is) not willing to consider that recommendation,” Kennedy said.
Both the opposition parties say the province should be doing more to push Ottawa to make the change.
“If the province is concerned enough about this, and this is really a priority for them, well then the pressure has to be applied to the federal government so they understand how important this really is,” Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said.
“If this recommendation gets left out and not put in place, I think that all of us will question, you know, did we actually learn the type of lessons that we needed to from Cougar 491?”
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said if the two levels of government were serious about it, they would have something concrete to show by now.
“I’m well aware that the Atlantic Accord has to have a change made to it in order to put this in place, but we’re talking about the potential of a loss of life again if we don’t get things put in place that were part of the Wells recommendation,” she said.
“I don’t accept what comes across as stalling and delaying tactics.”
On March 12 of this year, Kennedy marked the third anniversary of the Cougar 491 crash, calling it an “unspeakable tragedy” for the province. During his statement, he once again called for an independent safety regulator.
“Worker safety and environmental protection are paramount in our province’s offshore, and tragedies like Cougar Flight 491 are a reminder that constant vigilance is necessary to mitigate the risks as we strive to ensure a safe workplace for the men and women of our province,” Kennedy said.
“We have accepted all 29 recommendations of commissioner Robert Wells’ report of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, including Recommendation 29, which calls for a separate standalone safety regulator.”