It's a wrap, for now

Moira Baird
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Wells Inquiry clews up Phase 1 of public hearings

It was a day of last words at the Wells Inquiry as public hearings wrapped up Thursday.

Randell Earle, the lawyer for unionized offshore workers, said regulating safety may be too big a job for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).

Howard Pike, the CNLOPB's chief safety officer, faced a hard day of questioning by Earle and the lawyer for the families of offshore workers killed in the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash.

As Phase 1 of the Wells Inquiry into offshore helicopter safety concluded Thursday, Howard Pike (left), chief safety officer with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board continued his testimony. Pike faced a hard line of questions fr

It was a day of last words at the Wells Inquiry as public hearings wrapped up Thursday.

Randell Earle, the lawyer for unionized offshore workers, said regulating safety may be too big a job for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).

Howard Pike, the CNLOPB's chief safety officer, faced a hard day of questioning by Earle and the lawyer for the families of offshore workers killed in the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash.

And inquiry commissioner Robert Wells said the public hearings taught him that offshore helicopter safety is a complicated issue.

Earle said the board that regulates the province's offshore oil industry hasn't done a good job when it comes to offshore safety.

"My conclusion is that we have a CNLOPB, which from the point of view of safety regulation, is in serious need of renovation, if not replacement," he told reporters.

Earle pointed to the U.K., where a separate agency regulates safety and the environment.

Asked if the local offshore oil industry needs a similar agency, he said, "I think that is a position that deserves the most serious of consideration.

"I don't think we should absolutely come down on it at this point, but that's something that's got to be really looked at very, very hard. There's a lot of things that point in that direction."

Earle said the CNLOPB "dropped the ball" in communicating with offshore workers through their occupational health and safety committees or making improvements to safety devices, such as underwater breathing devices.

And, he said, the CNLOPB safety specialists failed to find a way to implement Recommendation No. 56 of the Ocean Ranger inquiry report - requiring a full-time, dedicated search and rescue (SAR) helicopter near the offshore oilfields.

Earle said it took a "roomful of lawyers" at the inquiry to accomplish that.

Last week, Wells issued early recommendations - requiring a dedicated SAR helicopter that can respond to an offshore oil industry emergency in 15-20 minutes.

He also recommended a temporary ban on night flights offshore until the SAR helicopter is equipped to carry out rescues at night.

The CNLOPB accepted both recommendations, and ordered the oil companies to submit a plan today on how to implement a dedicated SAR service for the industry.

During his questioning of Pike, Earle asked why it took so long to accomplish a dedicated SAR service and a ban on helicopter night flights offshore.

"It seems to me that you people, as safety experts, ought to be able to beat hands-down a roomful of lawyers on what are the challenges and what to do about the challenges.

"Yet it seems to have taken a roomful of lawyers to get CNLOPB to recognize that night flying is a problem, to recognize that a one-hour wheels-up time is not good enough.

"Why? What is it that has kept you, as safety experts, from seeing this? Or, if you saw it, from acting on it?"

Pike paused before responding.

He said he consulted with safety colleagues at the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority.

When he asked about their wheels-up time, he was told they focus on the overall goals of emergency preparedness - not just a wheels-up number.

"So at the end of the day, they did not actually identify a number for me," he said.

"Within the overall piece of escape, evacuation and rescue, the piece that was being proposed to us in the safety plan - which is what the safety plan is supposed to do - provided for a one-hour, wheels-up, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, year-in, year-out.

"One of the pieces that has become a greater concern for us today would be survival time."

Pike said he was told the hypothermia protection in survival suits used in Newfoundland is better than what's used in the Norwegian offshore industry.

But he also acknowledged things have changed since last year's helicopter crash.

"The conclusions that are reached today would be different conclusions than were reached a year ago - before March the 12th."

Wells told reporters Wednesday that the number of groups involved in offshore transportation makes helicopter safety a complicated issue to tackle - Transport Canada, which regulates aviation, the oil companies that contract Cougar Helicopters, and the board that regulates the offshore industry.

"I didn't realize how complex this was going to be, but it is complex."

He said the inquiry collected plenty of information during the hearings.

"There was some good information, and we've got a grasp now, I think, that enables us to go forward with the issues.

"We're going to start that process via a discussion on Tuesday ... and I'm hoping we can have the issues finalized somewhere around the middle of March."

That meeting will include the lawyers for those with standing to participate in the inquiry.

Then, Wells and inquiry lawyers will start investigating the issues, consult with other offshore oil and gas jurisdictions and examine research studies.

Wells must submit his Phase 1 report by Sept. 30.

Phase 2 of the inquiry begins when the Transportation Safety Board delivers its report. It is investigating the cause of the March 12 crash that killed 17 people.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Wells Inquiry, Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority Transport Canada Transportation Safety Board

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Point to
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    If the workers union has such concerns, why do they permit the workers to continue to fly and work offshore? The Union needs to shutdown production by telling the membership to stay at home till the changes are made. Guess it is not about safety really, but more about money for all parties. You would think that a strike for better safety would be higher then a strike for higher pay and benefits, guess not.

  • Point to
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    If the workers union has such concerns, why do they permit the workers to continue to fly and work offshore? The Union needs to shutdown production by telling the membership to stay at home till the changes are made. Guess it is not about safety really, but more about money for all parties. You would think that a strike for better safety would be higher then a strike for higher pay and benefits, guess not.