Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to pronounce Newfoundland, and why federal Cons have failed to move on independent offshore safety regulator

I posed the following questions on Tuesday (Dec. 2nd) to Jeff Labonte, director general with the Energy Sector at the federal Department of Natural Resources. Labonte appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources on the Offshore Health and Safety Act ( Bill C-5).

Mr. Ryan Cleary (St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NDP): Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to the witnesses.

First things first. Mr. Labonté, I noticed that you're having some trouble with the pronunciation of Newfoundland.

A good trick is to say, “Newfoundland, understand. Understand Newfoundland.”

That way you'll never get it wrong.

In one of the last statements that you made in your opening, you mentioned how this proposed legislation is an important step in clarifying our already excellent offshore oil and gas regime and ensuring occupational health and safety remains a priority.

There are some people in Newfoundland and Labrador who would have a problem with that particular statement, Mr. Labonté.

Justice Robert Wells headed an inquiry in 2010 into the crash of Cougar flight 491 that took the lives of 17 offshore workers.

According to Justice Wells, the most important recommendation from that inquiry was recommendation number 29 which called for an independent health and safety regulator. An independent health and safety regulator.

My question is why wasn't that particular recommendation for an independent safety regulator included in this bill?

Mr. Jeff Labonté: Thanks for the question and the pronunciation.

I'll keep that in mind.

Having grown up in central Canada, I'm always willing to learn about the new varieties in regional differences in how we pronounce things.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: No worries. We encounter that a lot from central Canadians.

Mr. Jeff Labonté: Indeed. You would think we have an accent in central Canada, and I would think the same for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Newfoundland, understand, and Labrador.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: Perfect.

Mr. Jeff Labonté: Good. The chair of the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Board will probably correct me on that in the next hour.

The first comment I would make would be that the drafting of the legislation and the identification of the occupational health and safety issues long preceded Justice Wells' inquiry and the work that he had done.

Certainly notwithstanding the incident and the tragedy that resulted in the workers perishing in the accident, the work that was done on the bill and the work to move forward with occupational health and safety was an effort to try to make sure there was clarity on what occupational health and safety encompassed, and how it would be addressed in the accord acts.

It didn't speak to the structure of the offshore board in terms of its organizational design, except to say that the powers and roles of the board officials, who are responsible for safety, were clarified.

But I'd have to say that there are a number of important aspects in the bill that address some of the issues that were raised by that report, and certainly there were 28 recommendations in that report that the board has moved forward with.

Recommendation 29 had two parts, (a) and (b).

Recommendation 29(a) recommended the separate safety regulator, and 29(b) recommended that within the current legislative framework there were a number of things the government could consider and the board could consider, and a number of practices that could be considered.

Certainly a number of those things were well underway, a number of them have been addressed, and we continue to talk with our colleagues in Newfoundland and Labrador to address all of the elements that we have, and to ensure we have a safe workplace.

That said, the bill's amendments certainly are another step at moving forward, continuing to address occupational health and safety and to ensure to the extent that we can that workers in the workplace remain safe.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: Thank you very much for that answer.

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board looks after three different mandates: health and safety; it looks after the environment; and it looks after industry regulation.

Some people where I come from say that puts the CNLOPB in a potential conflict. You can't look after three adequately.

Kathy Dunderdale, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador — and this comes back to my first question — has endorsed recommendation 29, saying that the province wants to move forward with this, but again, it comes down to the federal government and the federal government's failure to move forward itself.

More specifically, can you tell me whether or not your department has plans to move forward with an independent safety regulator for the offshore oil industry off Newfoundland and Labrador, and off Nova Scotia?

Mr. Jeff Labonté: I think the Premier of Newfoundland has expressed, a number of years ago, an interest in recommendation 29.

She didn't actually express whether it was (a) or (b).

At the time of that expression I think the legislation we're speaking to was not yet tabled, nor had it been considered.

From the perspective of the federal government I think Minister Oliver, responsible for the Department of Natural Resources, has expressed some concern about what some have termed the balkanization, or potentially the devolution of the expertise in the offshore industry should there be more than one regulator.

Certainly I think you had made the statement about the environment, industry regulation, and safety when you had said that there were three roles?

Mr. Ryan Cleary: Right, yes.

Mr. Jeff Labonté: Correct, there are three roles that the board performs. There is the role of safety, looking at the safety of operations, and as this amendment would propose, the safety of the workplace which is one of its primary roles and it is ultimately it's most important role.

The amendments proposed actually provide the chief safety officer the ability to shut down an operation.

That actually cannot be overturned by the CEO, it cannot be overturned by the board itself.

It can only be overturned by a provincial court judge.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: I'm sorry to interrupt, sir.

I'm just going to correct you on one thing.

Premier Dunderdale, of Newfoundland and Labrador, was pretty straightforward in coming out and saying that she agrees with recommendation 29 insofar as the creation of an independent safety regulator, so she's been clear about that.

Mr. Jeff Labonté: Okay, I would defer to your statement on that particular point.

But I would certainly address the question you said about the three aspects of the board's responsibilities.

Mr. Ryan Cleary: What I'd rather you get to is, how come the federal government has failed to date to follow through on that particular recommendation from the Wells Inquiry report?

Mr. Jeff Labonté: I think we've been looking at all of the aspects of the recommendation, and the report in and of itself.

There was the Hinkman report, which actually preceded that one, which actually suggested that the strength of the regulator was really important to continue.

There are different models around the world, and some have different approaches—

Mr. Ryan Cleary: Again, Justice Wells said it was the most important recommendation, term 29, specifically with regard to the independent safety regulator.

How come the federal government has failed to move on that specifically?

The Chair: You're out of time, Mr. Cleary, so a very short response.

Mr. Jeff Labonté: I'd like to say that we continue to look at recommendation 29 in the broader context of these amendments, other aspects of the offshore, and the context in which the recommendations are put forward.

We continue to have those discussions with officials in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and we will continue to do so.

The Chair: Thank you, and thank you, Mr. Cleary.

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