The lawyer for unionized offshore workers has levelled a barrage of criticism at the board that regulates the province’s oil industry, saying it has failed in its role as a regulator.
“We can find no other conclusion,” Randell Earle told the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety Thursday.
“The lesson learned in this inquiry is that Newfoundland and Labrador needs a strong and effective safety regulator.
“We can’t leave it to the operators and we can’t have a safety regulator that sits on its hands.”
Earle represents the Communications Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), Local 2121, whose members work at the Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields.
Thursday was the final day of submissions at the helicopter inquiry led by retired Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court justice Robert Wells.
The inquiry was established by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) following the March 12, 2009 crash that killed 17 people.
Now, Wells retires to his inquiry office to write a report recommending ways to improve helicopter safety for offshore workers travelling to and from the oilfields.
“I don’t want the report to be delayed any more than it must be, and it won’t be delayed in a significant way,” he said. “In fact … I’m still hoping for the 30th of September.”
Earle said the offshore board failed to push for timely introduction of underwater breathing devices, improvements to ill-fitting immersion suits, and faster search and rescue response times that are the norm in other offshore oil industries.
The oil companies didn’t escape criticism, either.
“These three areas that I’ve talked about in terms of the failures of CNLOPB equally reflect failures on the part of the companies.”
Earle said the companies failed to improve search and rescue (SAR) response times until Wells issued interim recommendations in February for a 15- to 20-minute response time.
“They weren’t going to do it until they were told to do it,” he said. “That’s not how you lead on safety.”
The lawyer for the companies that run the Hibernia, Terra Nova and White Rose oilfields told the inquiry the offshore industry doesn’t need a separate safety agency.
“We don’t see how a separation of the safety functions out … of the board is going to help the situation or improve safety,” said Alexander MacDonald.
“What we do think would be useful is a clarification of the roles between the two primary regulators in the offshore relating to helicopter transportation — that being Transport Canada and the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board.”
This could be accomplished with a memorandum of understanding between the two regulators.
MacDonald said a new S-92 helicopter will be ready for dedicated SAR duties in October. Until then, it’s one of four new S-92s transporting workers offshore.
“This has been put into regular service as of today (Thursday),” said MacDonald.
The S-92s have been equipped with forward-looking infrared radar and auto-hover, as Wells recommended.
“With respect to auto-hover, the aircrafts are equipped with auto-hover, but they’re not yet certified by the (U.S) Federal Aviation Authority and Transport Canada,” said MacDonald. “We expect that soon, but we can’t predict exactly when that will occur.”
Cougar Helicopters is contracted by the oil companies to provide SAR services offshore.
Following Wells’ recommendations, Cougar brought in an older Sikorsky S-61 helicopter dedicated to SAR duties. It’s providing a response time of 30 minutes.
Cougar is not expected to achieve a 15- to 20-minute response until a new hangar is built.
“You need the crew on site all the time and Cougar is now in discussions with the St. John’s Airport Authority and NavCanada to acquire the necessary approvals to build a new facility at the airport,” said MacDonald.
The oil companies are negotiating with the Marine Institute, which provides offshore training, to acquire a new training simulator — one that can be configured to resemble an S-92 helicopter.
“They are also negotiating with the Marine Institute to procure new facilities equipment to simulate wind and wave conditions to create a more realistic training environment,” said MacDonald.
In its presentation, the offshore board took exception to the notion that it promotes the oil industry rather than advances safety.
Amy Crosbie, the lawyer for the CNLOPB, said the offshore board was created by provincial and federal governments to facilitate “exploration for and development of offshore petroleum resources.”
“It does not follow that because the CNLOPB facilitates that activity that it promotes it, or the companies that pursue it.”
She likened the CNLOPB’s role in the offshore industry to that of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in regulating food production or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in regulating service providers.
“Our oil and gas industry is one of the most highly regulated in the world and has one of the highest safety records,” said Crosbie.