Nova Scotia’s energy minister says he’s satisfied with federal legislation aimed at improving safety in the offshore energy sector even though it doesn’t call for an independent safety agency, a measure he pushed for while in Opposition.
“I still think there is merit in having an offshore safety board,” Andrew Younger said in an interview.
“The reality is that I’m not going to sit around for five or six years ... while waiting and hoping that the other provinces and federal government might come on board.”
Younger said Ottawa’s proposal to have an independent safety officer within the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board is good enough — for now.
“It’s a huge step ahead from where we were,” he said. “It’s not the same as having a completely separate organization, but it is a step forward.”
The federal government has argued that the regulatory boards in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador are already independent of the industry. When Bill C-5 was tabled last October, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said he did not support the “proliferation” of regulators because that would not improve safety, worker protection or environmental protection.
In 2011, while a member of the provincial Liberal Opposition, Younger said a stand-alone, independent watchdog was a must for Nova Scotia.
“When you’re dealing with an inherently risky environment, it makes sense that you would have an independent agency or watchdog making sure that lives aren’t lost and that you don’t have injuries,” he said at the time.
Younger’s comments came nearly a year after an inquiry into an offshore helicopter crash called for the creation of an independent safety agency. The inquiry investigated the March 2009 crash of Cougar Flight 491, which plunged into the ocean near Newfoundland, killing 17 of the 18 people on board.
The inquiry, led by retired judge Robert Wells, found serious flaws with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the equivalent of Nova Scotia’s offshore regulator.
Wells said the board suffered from a lack of transparency and a lack of autonomous safety staff, which could contribute to a conflict of interest.
“Safety regulation should be separate from production aspects of the oil industry in order to avoid the conflicts which could arise when both activities are presided over by a single regulator,” Wells wrote in his report.
Independent safety boards have been set up for the offshore industries in Norway, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Wells also concluded that if establishing a safety agency wasn’t feasible, then he recommended setting up an autonomous safety division within the regulatory board, with a separate budget and a separate leadership dedicated only to safety.
Younger said these conditions have been met within the federal legislation, which is now before the Senate and has been mirrored at the provincial level.
Wells testified before a Commons committee in December, saying he would like to see a national safety agency created. However, he also said he supported the bill and understood that Canada’s offshore industry may be too small to justify a safety agency.
The federal New Democrats have argued that the bill doesn’t go far enough, though the party voted in favour of passing it earlier this month.
St. John’s South-Mount Pearl NDP MP Ryan Cleary said the bill represents a step forward, but added the NDP has not given up on pushing for an independent agency.
“Anything less than that is not serving the best interests of our people who work in the offshore,” he said. “Is this (legislation) a step forward? Yes. Is it a step far enough? Absolutely not.”
Newfoundland and Labrador’s natural resources minister, Derrick Dalley, declined a request for an interview. But he sent an email suggesting the province is still working with Ottawa regarding Wells’ key recommendations.
By Michael MacDonald
THE CANADIAN PRESS—HALIFAX