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Critics slam Nova Scotia's inaction on offshore safety body recommendation

By By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

The recommendations to establish a safety body for the offshore safety industry, following the 2009 fatal crash of a helicopter carrying offshore workers off Newfoundland, seem to be falling on deaf ears within the Nova Scotia government, according to critics. Despite the decision of its neighbouring province — Newfoundland and Labrador — to actively review the recommendation to establish an independent safety body, Nova Scotia has yet to respond.

HALIFAX — Critics are raising red flags about Nova Scotia's inaction nearly a year after an inquiry into a fatal helicopter crash off Newfoundland called for the creation of an independent safety agency for the offshore energy industry.

The inquiry that investigated the crash of Cougar Flight 491 issued its recommendations last November, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government has since discussed with Ottawa establishing its own safety board, though no formal agreements have been reached.

Last month, Nova Scotia's energy minister said the provincial government had yet to consider the idea. "I wouldn't say it's under active review," Charlie Parker said at the time.

Parker declined to discuss the matter earlier this week, but his office sent an email to The Canadian Press saying the department is now reviewing the inquiry's recommendations.

Liberal energy critic Andrew Younger said the minister's silence suggests the safety of Nova Scotia's offshore workers is not a priority for the NDP government.

"When the report came out in Newfoundland, that should have been a call to arms, not only in Newfoundland, but also in Nova Scotia," Younger said in an interview.

"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. ... I really don't believe that this government is taking the safety of our offshore workers seriously."

In Newfoundland, at least 700 people work offshore, usually in three-week stints.

Nova Scotia's industry is smaller, but dozens of workers are routinely using helicopters to reach platforms more than 200 kilometres from shore.

The Sable Offshore Energy Project typically has up to 50 people working on natural gas platforms for two weeks at a time. The project's operator, ExxonMobil Canada, uses the same company and helicopter model involved in the 2009 crash off Newfoundland.

As well, production is expected to start next year at the Deep Panuke platform, about 250 kilometres southeast of Halifax. A spokeswoman for Calgary-based Encana Corp. says 35 people will be working on the natural gas rig for two weeks at a time, using the same aircraft as the Sable crews — a Sikorsky S-92 operated by Cougar Helicopters.

Like Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia's offshore industry is regulated by a board jointly managed by the province and the federal government since the mid-1980s. The two boards are virtually the same in composition.

Critics have accused the boards of a conflict of interest because they are tasked with developing offshore resources while also verifying that the operators are complying with their safety and environmental plans.

The Newfoundland inquiry, led by retired judge Robert Wells, found serious flaws with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

Wells said the board did not have a "strong engagement" in helicopter operations, and it suffered from a lack of transparency and a lack of autonomous safety staff, which could contribute to a conflict of interest.

"I believe the major safety development of the past 20 years has been the realization that 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.

He urged the federal and provincial governments to set up a separate safety agency similar to ones already operating in Norway, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Judy Foote, a Liberal MP from Newfoundland who has closely followed the issue, said Nova Scotia should push for creation of its own safety agency.

"I would think that, based on the research that's been done, rather than doing the same research again in Nova Scotia ... that this would be a good example to follow," she said.

"There's a question here of conflict of interest by (the board), where they are working directly with the oil industry. To avoid that perception, it's in the best interest of anyone working offshore ... to have a separate agency where the focus is safety."

In Halifax, a spokeswoman for the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board said both boards have taken steps to improve safety since March 12, 2009, when one of Cougar's choppers crashed about 55 kilometres east of St. John's, killing 17 of the 18 people aboard.

Tanya Taylor White said the Nova Scotia board has: improved its aviation expertise; updated its drilling and production guidelines; established a group to review Wells's recommendations; and created a health, safety and environment committee.

Asked if the board supported Wells's recommendation for an independent agency, she said: "The offshore board is confident in its model for regulating the Nova Scotia offshore."

A spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the industry group isn't in a position to comment because it's up to the two levels of government to decide what to do. During the Wells inquiry, however, the association said no big changes were needed.

"The regulatory structure for offshore Newfoundland and Labrador oil and gas regulation is fundamentally sound," the association said in its submission. "In regard to the purpose of this inquiry, any improvements can and should be made within the existing regulatory structure."

Gail Fraser, a professor at Toronto's York University and an expert on the environmental management of oil and gas extraction, said the industry's response is telling.

"When the industry says that it's satisfied and they have no issues with their regulator, to me it raises red flags that the relationship might be too close," she said.

Fraser said she, too, was surprised by Nova Scotia's muted reaction to the Wells report.

"Given that the Newfoundland government has decided to go ahead and support all of the Wells recommendations, including an independent safety authority, I would have thought that Nova Scotia would also be contemplating the same," she said.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada found the primary cause of the Newfoundland crash was a loss of oil from the chopper's main gearbox after two of three titanium studs snapped off the oil filter assembly during flight.

At the time, the aircraft was taking offshore oil workers to the Hibernia and Sea Rose platforms more than 300 kilometres from St. John's.

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