Setting a new course

Moira Baird
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Commissioner Robert Wells recommends stand-alone offshore safety agency

Inquiry commissioner Robert Wells calls it his most important recommendation — a separate, independent agency to oversee all safety issues in the province’s offshore oil industry.

Wells said other offshore oil and gas jurisdictions around the world have made similar moves.

“It’s the safer way to go … because that is all that’s on the minds of those whose sole job is safety,” he said in an interview.

Wells delivered his report Wednesday to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), which regulates the province’s oil industry.

It created the inquiry a month after the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash that killed 17 of 18 people onboard.

Wells envisions a new, well-funded safety agency led by a CEO and high-level executives each responsible for a specific facet of offshore safety, such as helicopter transportation or research.

The CNLOPB has a chief safety officer and eight safety officers.

Wells also recommended the safety agency be supplemented with an advisory board of people with no connection to the oil industry.

A retired Newfoundland Supreme Court justice, he said the presence of lay people on the Law Society’s board of governors has proven to be an asset.

“They brought a different perspective, a different way of looking at things. They’re a sounding board.”

If creating a stand-alone agency isn’t possible right away, Wells recommended a short-term option: a beefed-up, autonomous safety division within the CNLOPB.

“What I would call an independent pillar under the umbrella of CNLOPB, I think that could be brought in more quickly.”

A stand-alone agency requires the provincial and federal governments to make legislative changes to devise a new safety regime, and that would take time.

“These things can’t be done overnight.”

Wells said a separate safety agency can be realized eventually — if the will to do it exists.

Conflict of interest

During the inquiry hearings, questions were raised about the CNLOPB’s ability to regulate both the safety of workers and oil industry exploration, production and resource management.

“I think there’s an awkwardness built into it,” said Wells. “Lord Cullen, who did the Piper Alpha inquiry, came to this conclusion 20-odd years that safety was so important that it ought to have a separate entity.

“The U.K. went that way and it’s worked.”

That move followed the 1988 explosion of the Piper Alpha oil production platform that killed 167 people in the North Sea.

Norway and Australia also have stand-alone safety agencies for their oil and gas industries.

The U.S. may take similar steps in the wake of the Deep Horizon explosion that killed 11 offshore workers and spewed millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Performance-based rules

The report also points out that new safety regulations enacted in January demand a “wider role” for the board’s existing safety division.

Those rules are performance-based — meaning the regulator sets goals for oil companies to meet and they must demonstrate how they will do this.

The report said performance-based regulations must go hand in hand with an “inclusive and pro-active regulatory approach.”

And that will require greater expertise from the regulator.

“They have to be able to assess it and evaluate, and they also should involve the workers to a greater degree, the other stakeholders to a greater degree and the public,” said Wells.

He said performance-based rules can be effective — if the regulatory regime is beefed up to ensure the goals are met.

“It requires a more capable, more elaborate and more well-funded and broader reaching safety regulator.”

Worker participation

A recurring key theme in the report is providing offshore workers with more information and opportunities to be consulted about helicopter safety.

“It will place a greater emphasis on safety because these are the people whose safety is on the line when it comes to helicopters,” said Wells.

“They should have input.”

Wells dedicated his report to the 17 people who died in the helicopter crash and to the lone survivor.

“Throughout the whole process, the families and their feelings have been very important to me,” he said. “They and the workers offshore … were always at the forefront of my mind.”

Wednesday’s report wraps up the first phase of the inquiry.

The second phase begins when the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) issues its investigation report on the cause of the crash.

Wells said he expects to see the TSB report in early winter.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Transportation Safety Board

Geographic location: U.K., North Sea.Norway, Australia U.S.

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  • Fintip
    November 18, 2010 - 07:47

    It is true that responsibility for this tragedy rests principally with the manufacturer and the transportation agencies that allowed Sikorsky to make gear box performance claims that it knew to be false. The Commissioner's recommendation for a separate agency for offshore safety is nevertheless the correct one. Transport Canada may decide, in its wisdom or otherwise, that an aircraft is approved for use in Canada. However an offshore safety board of the type proposed would determine whether that same aircraft is appropriate for use in the world's most hostile offshore petroleum environment. While the defective titanium bolts have been replaced, the S-92 still has no run-dry capability - the only difference being that pilots now know to put down immediately if there is a loss of oil pressure. Recognizing this ongoing danger, the Judge argued against resumption of night flights and also for a more stringent operational response to emergencies. A safety board could not dictate to Transport Canada or the Department of Defense (Search and Rescue) on these matters, but it could lay down the parameters and protocols under which oil companies, and their supply and service chain, are permitted to operate on the east coast. It is unreasonable to expect that the CNOPB can pursue two different, often conflicting objectives - maximizing economic rent from the resource while safeguarding workers who risk their lives in pursuit of that resource. We don't expect it to be the final arbiter of environmental protection; nor should it bear principal responsibility for safety. No doubt the premiers of NL and NS will today publicly endorse the call for an amendment to the Atlantic Accord to create such an agency. It is the model already in use in many other parts of the world. It is unfortunate that it has taken two enormous tragedies and the loss of a hundred lives to make it happen here.