New offshore oil safety agency needed: inquiry

A new, "powerful" regulator needs to be installed to govern Newfoundland's lucrative and growing offshore oil industry, an inquiry into helicopter safety has reported.
Commissioner Robert Wells says an independent and powerful regulator is needed to enforce safety in Newfoundland's offshore oil industry. ((CBC))

A new, "powerful" regulator needs to be installed to govern Newfoundland's lucrative and growing offshore oil industry, an inquiry into helicopter safety reported Wednesday.

Commissioner Robert Wells found that safety regulations need to be rewritten, compliance needs to be enforced and workers' safety has to be of paramount importance. The inquiry was called after the March 2009 crash of Cougar Flight 491, which killed all but one of the 18 people on board.

Wells, who heard sometimes emotional testimony during his St. John's inquiry, recommends dramatic changes for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, the federal-provincial regulator that recruited Wells to head the inquiry.

Key recommendations

  • New safety regulator with teeth, apart from C-NLOPB.
  • Dedicated 'first-response' helicopter for offshore.
  • Formal, mandatory reviews of safety procedures.
  • Night flights strongly discouraged.
  • Share information on airworthiness directives, incident reports.
  • Dedicated aviation expertise needed in-house.
  • Transparency, openness at C-NLOPB.

Wells determined that a stand-alone safety regulator is required to help improve safety conditions in the industry and to protect the interests of hundreds of people working at rigs and platforms off Newfoundland's east coast.

"I believe the safety regulator should be powerful, independent, knowledgeable, and equipped with expert advice," wrote Wells, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Wells delivered his four-volume report to the C-NLOPB on Wednesday.

The report's 29 recommendations include significant changes to how the offshore oil industry works, but the most significant appears to be changing the responsibilities at the C-NLOPB itself, a joint federal-provincial agency that sells offshore parcels to drilling companies and then regulates what happens in exploration and production.

Cause of crash outside mandate

Wells's mandate did not include examining what led to the Cougar crash. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating the incident and has already reported that significant mechanical problems in the gearbox occurred before the chopper plunged into the ocean.

Wells has called for numerous changes throughout the offshore oil industry, from supplying helicopter pilots with helmets to regular audits of safety procedures.

The inquiry was often told of safety shortcomings and allegations of lax oversight from the C-NLOPB.

One of Wells's priorities is dramatically improving search and rescue response times and arrangements. In February, Wells felt strongly enough about the issue to ask the C-NLOPB to have a helicopter set aside solely for emergency response, with a wheels-up time of 20 minutes or less. "That recommendation was accepted and is being acted upon," Wells reported.

Wells was also somewhat critical of how the C-NLOPB shares information. The board has been criticized for secrecy and for protecting corporate information over other concerns, though Wells himself avoided strong language.

"Offshore oil jurisdictions and regulators differ in the amount of information about safety which they give to the public," he wrote.

"In a free and democratic society such as Canada, as much information as possible on all safety matters should be made public at all times," wrote Wells, adding that exceptions should be kept to a minimum.