Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism, Martin Ferguson, today announced a joint inquiry with the Western Australian Government into the Varanus Island gas explosion in June last year.
Previous investigations have focussed on the technical causes of the incident rather than the underlying regulatory regime and the performance of the regulators.
Mr Ferguson said, "It is vital that we also look at the effectiveness of the regulatory regime and the role of the regulators to ensure that Australia's offshore petroleum safety regulation is world's best practice.
"The safety of people working in the industry is our first priority, but the integrity of offshore petroleum facilities that provide essential energy services to Australian businesses and households is also vital.
"If shortcomings are found in the regulatory regime and its administration, then I am committed to taking the steps necessary to protect Australian workers and Australian energy supplies and exports."
A two-member expert panel will be appointed to conduct the inquiry.
Mr Ferguson said, "I am pleased that Mr Kym Bills of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, a person with great standing in safety management systems, has agreed to my request to undertake this important work.
"The Western Australian Government will make its nomination to the panel imminently."
Work will start in mid-January and the inquiry is expected to report by mid-April this year.
The Commonwealth will fund the inquiry up to $1 million.
Project management, office accommodation and corporate services for the expert panel and executive and secretarial support staff will be provided by the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum and the Commonwealth Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.
The terms of reference are to:
- Review safety-related documentation that existed in the lead-up to the incident including that related to activity undertaken by the operator in accordance with 'safety case' commitments and requirements outlined in the relevant licences for operation.
- Examine the effectiveness of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) and the Western Australian Department of Industry and Resources (DoIR) and the arrangements underpinning the operating regime.
- Assess the adequacy of the responses from the owners/operators of the operations and facilities including an assessment of the adequacy of pipeline licence (PL12) safety obligations, safety case documentation and implementation.
- Consider options and make recommendations (if required) to improve the regulatory regime and the safety and integrity of petroleum operations and facilities, particularly integrated onshore/offshore operations and facilities in Commonwealth and Western Australian jurisdictions.
Since the proposal for an independent inquiry was agreed between the Commonwealth and Western Australian Governments in December 2008, two further major incidents, one of which involved a fatality, have occurred in upstream petroleum operations off Western Australia.
Both incidents involved cyclone emergencies during the period of Cyclone Billy from 15-24 December 2008 for integrated maritime/upstream petroleum operations on two separate vessels, the Karratha Spirit (which resulted in one fatality) and the Castoro Otto (which had a crew of 300 on board but no injuries reported).
Mr Ferguson said: "While the primary focus of the independent inquiry will be the effectiveness of the regulatory regime for safety and integrity that applied to Varanus Island and the role of the regulators, the inquiry willÂ also consider the effectiveness of the safety regime that applied to the Karratha Spirit and the Castoro Otto and the complementary roles of NOPSA and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in ship safety regulation for these vessels.
"All three incidents involved complex interactions between jurisdictions and multiple regulators.
"These interactions have to be seamless to guarantee personnel safety and facility integrity and we need to know if improvements can be made.
"Once the inquiry is completed, its report will be referred to the Ministerial Council on Mineral and Petroleum Resources for proper consideration."