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Newfoundland Premier wants independent agency to monitor offshore oil safety

The wreckage of Cougar Helicopter flight 491.

Paul Daly/Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

The Newfoundland and Labrador government wants an independent safety agency for its offshore oil sector after a deadly helicopter crash prompted calls for a regulatory overhaul.

"I will be contacting the federal government to begin discussions about the setup of a stand-alone regulator," Premier Kathy Dunderdale said to applause in the House of Assembly Monday.

"There is nothing more important than human safety in our offshore. This is a matter of high importance and we will work expeditiously with our partner, the federal government, to ensure this happens as quickly as possible."

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The province jointly manages offshore resources with Ottawa under the Atlantic Accord.

A spokesman for Natural Resources Canada said the department is reviewing the recommendation and will work with the province. But Paul Duchesne said the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board – which now oversees offshore safety – is "a strong, independent regulator."

The Premier's remarks came just hours after the board said it will act on almost every recommendation from the helicopter safety inquiry.

But chairman Max Ruelokke stressed it is up to the province and Ottawa to create a new and truly independent safety body.

Critics say the board is in a conflict of interest because it has the task of developing offshore resources to the maximum extent while also protecting workers and the environment.

The helicopter safety probe was called after Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the sea on March 12, 2009, killing 17 of 18 people on board.

Inquiry head Robert Wells made 29 recommendations last month to improve the safety of helicopter travel to offshore oil platforms.

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Ms. Dunderdale said the provincial government accepts every one.

The board said it accepts 27 of the recommendations in full. It will continue banning night flights except for medical emergencies, and will reassess that recommendation when a fully equipped search and rescue chopper is certified, likely in coming months.

Mr. Ruelokke told a news conference Monday that workers who don't feel safe flying at night have the right to refuse.

Mr. Wells also called for a safety regulator independent from the board to better safeguard workers and the environment.

Mr. Ruelokke deferred to the province and Ottawa. "We believe that decision is a policy matter, and policy should be determined by those people who are elected to govern – not by regulators," he said.

The province's support for independent oversight runs counter to oil companies that told the inquiry there's no need for a regulatory shakeup to enhance helicopter safety.

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Mr. Ruelokke stressed Monday, as he has before, that the board's chief safety officer already acts independently. And he noted that tragedy and near-misses have struck oil-and-gas jurisdictions in Norway, the United Kingdom and Australia that have separate safety agencies.

"Helicopter transport of workers does present risks," he said.

Mr. Ruelokke cited a February, 2009, incident in the North Sea in which all 18 offshore workers were rescued after a controlled ditching.

In April, 2009, the month after the Flight 491 disaster, a helicopter crashed in the North Sea, killing all 16 people on board.

"These incidents also demonstrate that the training and equipment provided to offshore workers is to improve their chances of survival in the event of a controlled ditching," Mr. Ruelokke said. "A crash is an entirely different event and, unfortunately, when crashes happen, training and equipment may not be enough."

Still, Mr. Wells stressed in his four-volume report the need for more "proactive and vigorous" regulation as companies seek oil far from shore.

He also noted that the shift a year ago to a goal-based offshore regulation system requires a safety watchdog that is "powerful, independent, knowledgeable and equipped with expert advice."

"Safety should never, ever be taken for granted," Mr. Wells said in an interview. "Oil operators are going further afield into deeper and more dangerous waters. Therefore, the emphasis on safety has to be absolutely top-notch.

"If we didn't learn anything else from the Gulf of Mexico, we learned how important safety is – not only for the human lives that were lost, but the damage to the environment."

As an alternative to a separate safety body, Mr. Wells recommended the creation of an autonomous division within the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

Mr. Ruelokke said internal changes will be led by new aviation and safety teams headed by outside experts selected by the regulatory board.

The board's operations and safety division might be separated to allow sole concentration on safety matters using an autonomous budget, he said. The board has also asked the province for more money to beef up staff and resources.

Ms. Dunderdale said such changes would be a good first step while the province and Ottawa establish a separate safety regulator.

In the meantime, Mr. Ruelokke said offshore workers and the public will soon see more public reporting on the board's website on helicopter airworthiness directives and safety incidents.

The board was criticized last month when it took days to discuss why more than 30 workers were sent home from the White Rose production site because of a buildup of sour gas levels blamed on a faulty circulating pump. The gas is toxic and flammable, but the incident was initially made public only through media reports.

Mr. Ruelokke has acknowledged a need for more transparent reporting.

At least 700 people work offshore, usually in three-week stints, at any given time.

Mr. Wells called for safety forums to be held at least three times a year. He said they should involve the offshore regulator, oil companies, helicopter operators and workers.

Mr. Wells also said pilots or co-pilots should brief passengers at the beginning of offshore flights.

Mr. Ruelokke said the board's action plan for most recommendations should be complete by mid-2011.

Lawyer Jamie Martin, representing families of the victims of Flight 491, said he hopes safety changes won't drag on.

"I think it's critical that the workers not be let down," Mr. Martin said. "They were let down in the past. There was insufficient information sharing. There was a lot of apprehension about the training that was provided.

"I think it's incumbent upon the board, the governments and the operators to ensure that situation doesn't exist again."

The cause of the Flight 491 tragedy is still being investigated by the Transportation Safety Board. It has already cited a loss of oil pressure in the main gearbox after two titanium studs securing an oil filter assembly snapped off in flight.

Oil flowing through the main gearbox helps power the helicopter's rotor drive.

The flight was taking offshore oil workers to the Hibernia and Sea Rose platforms more than 300 kilometres from St. John's when the pilots reported a loss of oil pressure.

The chopper crashed into the sea 11 minutes later, about 55 kilometres from St. John's.

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