Robert Wells pleased with response on helicopter safety

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Retired Justice tells federal committee he’s not upset by not having standalone safety regulator

Comments made to a federal government committee by Justice Robert Wells — who headed the inquiry into the March 2009 crash of Cougar Helicopters Flight 491 offshore Newfoundland — might surprise critics of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) when it comes to safety.

Wells was in Ottawa Wednesday to testify before the House of Commons standing committee on natural resources and was asked about his recommendation for an independent safety regulator for the offshore oil and gas industry.

He said he is pleased with the response on the recommendation to date.

Recommendation 29 — A and B

He told the committee his recommendation — Recommendation 29 — grew out of his review of other offshore disasters and, specifically, recommendations on safety following the Piper Alpha disaster, with the deaths of 167 men in the North Sea in 1988.

The idea of an independent safety regulatory entity was adopted in the United Kingdom after the disaster, then Norway, Australia and the United States, following the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

“(U.S. investigators) also felt and recommended that there should be a safety, a separate safety authority, rather than the authority which deals with the operators on a day-to-day basis, granting permission to operate, to explore, to bring an operation into being,” he said.

“And I do feel that a separate safety authority is a good thing, but I was perceptive enough to realize that not everybody might agree and I hold no grudge about that.”

Wells noted Canada’s offshore industry is small compared to those of the countries with a standalone regulator for safety. That is why he included an “Option B” on the safety regulator in his recommendation.

“So I thought at the time that it may be that the powers that be — I suppose you are the powers that be in some sense,” he told the House of Commons committee, “may not feel that it was time for, or was needed, to have a separate safety authority. And therefore I put in the second part B — that if it’s not felt that this is the right way to go, then here is a fallback way. 

“And I’m happy to say that I think that fallback way has been adopted and good has come from it. And that pleases me as an individual very much,” he said, referring to a strengthening on the CNLOPB’s safety arm.

Wells said if a separate safety authority is eventually brought in, he does not see it being specifically for the Newfoundland and Labra­dor offshore, but being a national authority.

“It would operate wherever the oil and gas is discovered offshore,” he said.

Wells on night flights

Sitting for the committee meeting, NDP MP Jack Harris asked whether an independent regulator might be better able to deal with questions of safety, with issues such as whether or not a 30-minute run-dry on the gearboxes in offshore helicopters should be a requirement and if nighttime worker transports — night flights — should be allowed.

Wells spoke directly to the night flights issue in his response.

“Now, I’m not going to second guess what the CNLOPB may do. They’re going to have to make a decision on this. But the situation now is much more amenable, if you like, to night flights,” he said, pointing to improvements in training, equipment, and search and rescue.

“We have all these things and that means that night flights can be viewed in a different manner, whatever the decisions are.

“But still, yes, I agree with you that it’s more dangerous to rescue at night and perhaps more difficult. That is true. But at the same time, a risk assessment has to be made, because maybe the risk is acceptable.”

Wells noted Norway has night flights, but Norway also has an ability to blitz search and rescue, given the nature of the North Sea, surrounded by land, versus the reach into the Atlantic Ocean that is undertaken by oil companies active offshore Newfoundland and Labrador.

Wells suggested nighttime flights not be scheduled and a team of personnel consider when it may or may not be appropriate to do supplementary flights at night.

The questions directed to the retired Justice were in relation to Bill C-5, a piece of legislation bringing new occupational health and safety language into the Atlantic Accords. The legislation has already been announced, debated and approved at the provincial level. Committee meetings on Bill C-5 are scheduled to continue Monday.

Organizations: House of Commons

Geographic location: Norway, North Sea, United States Ottawa United Kingdom Australia Gulf of Mexico Canada Newfoundland Atlantic Ocean

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