Many times we’ve written that engineers should unite around causes such as the need for more spending on infrastructure and qualifications-based selection. When it comes to other matters, such as the importance of licensed practice and licensed engineering professors, we’re reminded that engineering is divided among numerous disciplines with their own needs and agendas. Engineering is sprawling and diverse, more like India than Switzerland. Engineers can never be as culturally coherent or politically unified as physicians, attorneys or architects.
But this state of affairs doesn’t mean engineering has split into so many loosely related camps that one sector has no effect on another. When one group of engineers trips up, should their peers in other disciplines make judgments about the problem?
That’s one of the big questions hovering over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Degreed petroleum and drilling engineers played important roles in the decisions leading up to the blowout, explosion, fire and oil spill. To some extent, all engineers will be judged by what happened, with no distinction between the licensed and unlicensed. When an ENR editorial suggested the Gulf disaster amounted to “engineering’s shame,” many, but not all, readers who contacted us pointed out that these engineers were subject to the demands of their profit-minded oil-industry employers. Others noted the shared responsibility with the drilling rig’s owner and operator, Transocean.
Readers said the Gulf spill didn’t belong in the lap of the licensed civil and structural professional engineers. They have a point.
Testimony given during several different investigations of the disaster has shown that something was missing in the relatively new world of drilling at ocean depths greater than 5,000 ft—namely, engineering resources and expertise to work safely. The resources were lacking both at the oil companies and at the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, which has been seeking to hire additional inspectors in recent months.
More engineering review was needed in the interim phases between drilling and securing the well.
Licensed engineers have made tragic mistakes that have cost human life and damaged the profession’s image. However, licensed engineers at least are subject to discipline by state boards of registration for violations of their ethical codes.
If licensed engineers had evaluated all the risks created by the incremental decisions to save time and cut costs, could the Deepwater Horizon tragedy have been prevented? We will never know. Licensed professional engineers have the right to refuse tasks that cut safety too closely or endanger the public, and they may be more likely to break a chain of small compromises before a big disaster results. Ultra-deepwater drilling would gain from such independent judgment.