On December 31, Canada’s offshore oil and gas workers were instantly stripped of their health and safety protections. The people who work in an already challenging environment lost their rights to health and safety through codified regulations. January 1 saw the expiry of the transitional offshore health and safety regulations that had been in place for the previous six years.
Our home province has been struck with offshore tragedies. In 1982, the Ocean Ranger drilling rig capsized in a storm, resulting in the deaths of all 84 on board. This was Canada’s worst tragedy at sea since the Second World War and is now engrained in our history. Just about every Newfoundlander and Labradorian had some connection to someone who lost their life that night. On March 12, 2009, Cougar helicopter flight 491 ferrying 18 offshore workers crashed into the North Atlantic. There was only one survivor — my friend and neighbour, Robert Decker. The search and rescue technician who was lowered down and pulled Robert out of the sea that day was Ian Wheeler, a high school classmate of mine. In Newfoundland and Labrador these tragedies touch us all.
Offshore health and safety hits close to home in our province. We are a close community and these tragedies are rooted deeply in our culture. We commemorate them and we mark time with them. This history of disaster underscores the importance of having robust and permanent offshore health and safety regulations. We have a duty to protect our offshore workers — key contributors to our economy and our communities.
In 2014, I sponsored a bill in the Senate called the Offshore Health and Safety Act. This Act played a critical role in increasing worker safety in Canada’s offshore areas. It clarified the processes, jurisdictions, and responsibilities of all parties involved in offshore health and safety.
With the 2014 Offshore Health and Safety Act came the goal of finally implementing permanent health and safety regulations specific to Canada’s offshore, including helicopter travel. However, it was understood then that putting these permanent regulations in place required time. That is why the Act included temporary, transitional regulations which provided the government a five-year window — to 2019 — to draft permanent regulations. The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had five years to implement these new safety regulations. A one-year extension to this five-year window was tucked deep inside the 884-paged Budget Implementation Act of 2018 — which extended the five-year period by one year and brought the expiry of the transitional regulations to the end of 2020. Even after six years the Liberal government did not get this done.
Bill S-3 seeks to extend these transitional regulations for two more years, to December 31, 2022. This bill was introduced in December, just before Christmas, not enough time for it to undergo the required three readings and committee study in both the Senate and the House of Commons. Needless to say, the government allowed for the expiry of the only codified regulations specifically designed to protect our offshore workers. This is a dereliction of duty and indifference to the safety of the workers in the offshore. The government knew it wouldn’t pass so they wrote in a retroactive clause, meaning that should it pass in the future, the transitional regulations would be “revived on January 1, 2020.” This legal loophole doesn’t change the fact that the government failed to bring health and safety regulations to some of our most at-risk workers. And it does not protect the offshore workers right now and has not since January 1.
This is an abdication of responsibility by the federal government, the Department of Natural Resources, and minister responsible, Seamus O’Regan. That the government is seeking a two-year extension after the completion of a five-year period and a one-year extension is shameful. There has been ample time to develop permanent regulations; however, this has not been done. The operating companies, the service and supply sector and the workers have all prioritized health and safety. Offshore safety is an important issue and speaks to the fundamental role of government: the protection of its citizens. Given the harsh operating environment and our history of tragedy, what could be more important in our offshore than health and safety?
Senator David Wells is a former deputy CEO of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. He represents Newfoundland and Labrador.
This article appeared in the February 4, 2021 edition of The Telegram.