Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in debate on Bill C-5. One of the greatest privileges of being a member of this place is the opportunity to create and improve legislation that positively impacts the lives of our fellow Canadians. I believe, in fact, that Bill C-5 is a case in point.
It is not news to Canadians that our country places great economic importance on the development of natural resources. Throughout our history, that has been the case. Forestry products, natural gas, hydroelectricity and oil are cornerstones of our export market and contribute immensely to the creation of jobs for middle-class Canadians. Some of our natural resources are also extracted offshore. In Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador people know the importance this activity has for their economies.
The offshore sector is, of course, the subject of the bill, specifically the occupational health and safety of offshore workers. Mirror legislation has already received royal assent, in fact, in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Nova Scotia. While the bill is quite large, several hundred pages or more, some observers have noted that it primarily lays down in law things that are already happening in practice. Unfortunately, one issue that the bill does not address is recommendation 29 from the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry led by Commissioner Robert Wells.
The Wells inquiry was established by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board following the 2009 helicopter crash about 30 nautical miles off of St. John's, Newfoundland. As members may recall, the helicopter was carrying 16 people to work in the offshore fields when it crashed, killing 15 of those workers and the two pilots. Commissioner Wells recommended that a new, independent, stand-alone safety regulator be established to regulate safety in the offshore. In fact, I asked the minister about that idea a little earlier.
The commissioner went on to say that if recommendation 29 was not feasible, a separate and autonomous safety division of the C-NLOPB should be created to deal only with safety matters. Unfortunately, Bill C-5 does not implement this recommendation in either of the ways the commissioner offered as options. I would urge the Conservative government to see if it can address this fact when the legislation is sent to committee, which I think it will be, and amendments are brought forward. If that cannot be done, perhaps it could bring forward legislation soon, working with the provinces involved, obviously, to deal with this.
As Canadians, we are well aware, of course, of the oil sands. Its production, export and environmental impact colours the discourse of the government every day. It is often talked about here in the House, and these days in the U.S. as well. Lesser known but still valuable is our domestic offshore oil and gas industry operating in the coastal waters of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, even though in Nova Scotia there has been a decline in revenues from the offshore in recent years as the production of gas from existing wells declines and with the relatively low price of gas in North America. In fact, in North America the gas level price is about $3 whereas in Asia it is between $14 and $18, so there is quite a variation. That means that there is a little less interest these days in more costly exploration offshore versus production onshore, as is happening a great deal in the U.S.
The offshore industry in Newfoundland and Labrador produced more than 28 million barrels of oil in 2013. In Nova Scotia, offshore production accounts for a significant portion of the province's annual revenue, although it has been declining. The offshore oil and gas industry provides employment for Canadians and security for their families, for thousands of people. My hon. colleague from South Shore—St. Margaret's, for instance, would know this having worked in the offshore. He would also understand that the primary concern of the industry is its own economic viability and success. Meanwhile, as legislators, it is our responsibility to strike a careful balance between the economic success of Canadian business and the rights of employees, and of course consideration for our environment. There are and must be times when these latter two take precedence.
Bill C-5 is one of the many tools to achieve this. Canada is often referred to as a nation rich in natural resources. We must ask ourselves how we should behave when we are labelled in this way, especially these days when there is so much concern about the impact on the environment of the exploitation of natural resources and when we need to have the social licence, whether it be within our country or beyond our borders in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that has been proposed for example, when we need to have support elsewhere for what we are doing and a recognition that we are making important efforts and doing everything we can to ensure the environment is protected. I do not think most Canadians believe for a moment that the Conservative government has been doing that.
It seems to me that we should also be striving to set an example for other countries by valuing our human capital as much as we value the wealth we derive from our natural resources. The bill is very much about our human capital as we are thinking about the safety and health of our workers.
The bill will in fact effectively solve the issue of jurisdiction surrounding the occupational and operational health and safety in the Canadian offshore oil and gas industry. That is an important thing to do. It is frustrating that it has taken over 10 years to do that. This process has been under way and we have been discussing it a long time.
Nevertheless, for this reason, because it is achieving this, the Liberal Party supports Bill C-5. We believe we need to move the legislation to committee so that it can be studied, and if necessary improved. We certainly look forward to the opportunity to examine the bill, to hear from experts and to consider possible improvements.
The original offshore accords were signed in the late 1980s by Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia. They were designed to establish guidelines for revenue and responsibility sharing of offshore oil and gas assets. These assets have since proved to be economically rewarding, especially so in Newfoundland and Labrador, and have supported programs beyond the scope of resource extraction.
Bill C-5 seeks to clarify jurisdictional issues that arise between occupational health and safety and operational safety, to create a streamlined process for rectifying health and safety issues and to assign responsibility. We do not want to have any doubt, when there is an accident in the offshore, about whether it is a matter of federal or provincial jurisdiction. We want to know that there will be clear laws, that the courts will know which laws apply, and that nothing falls through the cracks. We want to know that people are protected and that in the worst case scenario, God forbid there is another accident like the helicopter accident, families seeking redress know where to go, what to look for and what laws apply to them. That is obviously important.
The right to a safe workplace is one that all Canadians must enjoy. It is fundamental for all of us. Those of us who work in this place are very fortunate. We have a very safe environment, at least in terms of actual health and safety. I did not say it was secure, especially when elections come along. Nobody here has job security for more than four years or so.
However, we are very fortunate in the kind of work we do in this job. Generally speaking it is pretty good for health and safety. We do not have to engage in the kinds of work that some people in our country do have to engage in. We can think of that television show Dirty Jobs. There are many jobs in this world that are dangerous and challenging.
This morning as I left my apartment and walked here, the first thing I saw was a new building under construction across the street. I was thinking about the construction workers and the kinds of things they have to learn to work on a site such as that. There are health and safety things they have to learn to know how to operate in an environment where it can be somewhat dangerous. If they back up the wrong way or take the wrong step, they could be in a big trouble on a construction site with a building that is already 10 storeys high, and as I learned this morning, is going to be 22 storeys. That is the kind of place where people want to be careful.
The right to a safe workplace is something the government should keep in mind as it proceeds also with Bill C-4, the omnibus budget bill.
Though a safe workplace is not the reality for all, through the years, governments and parliamentarians have worked with stakeholder groups to improve the conditions faced by Canadians in their places of employment. That, obviously, is incredibly important work. Bill C-5 is an example of these efforts. In this case they are the efforts of the provincial and federal levels working together, which is nice to see. It is our collective responsibility, whether as a legislative body, employers or employees, or society as a whole, to ensure that the right to a safe work environment is respected. It is absolutely vital.
Conditions for employees on offshore drilling projects should be comparable to those found on land-based projects. There is no question that a drilling rig, whether offshore or onshore, can be a very dangerous environment. My brother at one time worked on offshore oil rigs, and I have certainly heard stories from him about the nature of them and what he had to learn before he could work there, especially if the work was around the equipment that was the most dangerous.
The mode of transportation to their work site should be safe and reliable. Think about the helicopter accident. Employees of the oil and gas sector offshore and their families should be able to leave for work with confidence that they will be returning safely home. They should be able to voice their concerns about unsafe working conditions when they find them without fear of reprisal or the frustration of drawn out and murky processes. It is important that the processes be clear and expedient.
It is our job to transform these topics of concern I have just listed into topics of confidence. Employees and their families can be confident that what is proposed in Bill C-5, as far as it goes, would improve the health and safety regimes of offshore oil and gas projects. It is up to us to decide by how much.
Members of our party believe that we need to ensure the separation of health and safety concerns from those of production and economic viability. They are two different things. We want to make sure that sometimes, when necessary, those health and safety concerns are paramount, as they ought to be.
Bill C-5 should guarantee that the proposed chief safety officer has powerful methods of inquiry to hold operators to account. A regime of self-regulation would be insufficient. I have already said that we do not think that the chief safety officer approach is necessarily ideal. There are others Commissioner Wells recommended, but since that is what we are going with, let us try to make it as strong as possible. The chief safety officer must not be influenced in decision-making by concerns of economic viability or by political pressure, obviously. This individual must be a champion of a healthy and safe environment for all employees who work on offshore oil and gas projects.
The Liberal Party places great emphasis also on search and rescue capabilities, or SAR, as it is called. This is a core element of the health and safety regime in the offshore industry.
The spring 2013 report of the Auditor General outlined significant issues regarding search and rescue capabilities, including a complete lack of federal policy in this area. The Attorney General is rightly concerned about the viability of search and rescue capabilities in the coming years and about the risk of leaving employees in the offshore sector with inadequate assistance in the case of major emergencies.
Bill C-5 includes guidelines on the safe transport of workers to and from the offshore site. It should also include a procedure for rescuing these individuals should something go wrong. This should be included in this legislation, it seems to me.
The unique challenges of the offshore oil and gas industry must be met by a complete and thorough plan of response. Bill C-5, as I said earlier, is the product of over a decade of negotiations and consultations among the federal government, the provincial governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, and stakeholder groups. A decade is a long time. Really, it is excessive. I would hope that future negotiations would move more quickly. If the Conservatives, at least while they are the government, will take this seriously and move quickly, along with provinces—