Safety: one reason for offshore "Red Tape"

For the past several years there has been a seemingly endless stream of complaints from companies working in Nova Scotia's offshore about the regulations, the levels of bureaucracy, and the time taken for project approval. The complaints continued in early October at the Canadian Offshore Resources Exhibition held in Halifax, where Jim Massey, ExxonMobil's vice-president of Canada and South America, stated "It's time to make some changes - Atlantic Canada has got to get competitive".

The good news for Mr. Massey is that the Nova Scotia government has been listening. For example, the Nova Scotia government's 2004 Energy Strategy Progress Report proclaimed that, "A working group of industry and government is now implementing improvements to our regulatory process and examining ways to reduce drilling costs". In fact, at the same offshore resources exhibition, provincial Energy Minister, Cecil Clark, went further, saying that the provincial government is "very close" to introducing a new regulatory process that will reduce approval times and costs for new offshore development projects.

So what are the changes that Mr. Massey wants (and apparently the provincial government is willing to offer)? According to Mr. Massey (as quoted by the Chronicle-Herald), "We do some things here that we don't do other places. It has to do with standby boats, requirements for the rigs (which) in our ... judgment are probably not necessary".

A standby boat (or standby vessel) is defined by the Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Drilling Regulations as "a [standby] vessel that has sufficient capacity and equipment to evacuate all personnel from the drill site shall be provided for a drilling operation as a means of evacuating personnel from the drill site". In other words, the purpose of a standby vessel is to rescue workers who are in peril (including helicopter crashes, workers falling off platforms, and evacuating from a catastrophic accident, such as a fire or explosion). Most, if not all, offshore developments around the world (from the North Sea to China) require standby vessels for the safety of their workers.

In the North Sea during the 1980s, the ratio of standby vessels to offshore platforms was one-to-one, with many of the standby vessels simply being converted trawlers stationed near a manned offshore platform. After the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in which 167 men died (of the 61 who survived, 37 were picked up by the platform.s standby vessel), new standards were set for working conditions and standby vessels. Today, a North Sea standby vessel is permitted to support up to three offshore platforms; some vessels are in a "mother/daughter" configuration consisting of a main standby vessel and two vessels that can work independently of the main vessel.

Standby vessels, although they are an integral part of offshore safety, cost money to operate and this is a cost that all major companies operating in the offshore would like to reduce. Earlier this year, British Petroleum (BP) announced that it plans to get rid of its North Sea standby vessel fleet and replace it with an integrated air and sea cover system that involves the deployment of platform-based and shore-based search-and-rescue helicopters and the use of three regional support vessels. Some oil companies and the two unions that represent offshore oil workers have expressed concerns over the safety of BP's plans.

Standby vessels are an integral part of offshore safety. The fact that Nova Scotia's offshore is so small makes it impossible to spread the costs over a number of platforms as is done in larger plays such as the North Sea. If ExxonMobile wants to make changes to standby vessel regulations, Nova Scotians could reasonably be asking themselves, what about the safety of our offshore workers?

This is an interesting question, perhaps best answered by the following paragraph from the 2004 Energy Strategy Progress Report, "In October 2003, legislation was introduced to provide offshore workers with the same kind of occupational health and safety legislation as those working on land. We are now reviewing the legislation while we consult broadly with Nova Scotians".

The legislation in question, Bill 37 (amendments to the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation), was introduced in the Nova Scotia Legislature on 29 October 2003 by the Minister of Environment and Labour. The legislation received second reading on 16 April 2004 and was referred to the Law Amendments Committee for public input. To date, Bill 37 has not been called for consideration before the Law Amendments Committee and therefore, has proceeded no further in its progress towards becoming law. In short, Nova Scotians working on the offshore still do not have the same kind of occupational health and safety legislation as those working on land.

One can only hope that the delay in the progress of Bill 37 has nothing to do with Mr. Massey's call for Atlantic Canada to "get competitive" or Energy Minister Clark's proposal for reducing costs for new offshore development projects.

Of course, there is another way in which ExxonMobile can reduce its need for standby vessels and that is to automate its permanently staffed production platforms. This might be good news for ExxonMobile and could improve offshore safety; however, it will do little to meet the government's promises of offshore employment.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. 26 October 2004.