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Was the Deepwater Horizon Accident Caused, In Part, By Exemptions in the Engineering Practice Laws?

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WAS THE DEEPWATER HORIZON ACCIDENT CAUSED, IN PART, BY THE INDUSTRIAL AND GOVERNMENT EXEMPTIONS IN THE ENGINEERING PRACTICE LAWS?

SHORT ANSWER: PROBALY YES

By John F Heneage, PE

Politicians argue that it is not time to figure out who is responsible or what caused the accident, they say we can figure this out later. Translation: We might have indirectly had a role in causing this accident and we need time to cover it up and re-direct the associated inquiries. Direct answer: Politicians and corporate management had a direct and causal relationship to the accident, specifically by failing to require licensed engineers be part of the process, lay persons were allowed to make key technical decisions that facilitated the tragedy.

All economic activity involves elements of risk. For high risk activities, society weighs the benefit of an activity against the risk the activity poses and often thinks regulation will minimize the exposure to these risks. High risk activities, such as the Deepwater Horizon well, almost always involve engineering. Present state engineering license laws require some, but not all engineers to be licensed. This haphazard approach allows lay persons and some engineers to practice engineering without being licensed.

Generally engineers working for government or industry are not required to be licensed, even though the decisions they make can be catastrophic. Licensed engineers are required to practice engineering in accordance with prescribed legal and ethical requirements. Licensed engineers have the force of law on their side, that is, if they encounter or are directed to perform activities that threaten, in their professional opinion, the health, safety or economic welfare of the public, they are legally required to report the activity to the proper authority[i]. Unlicensed individuals, some who may hold engineering degrees, are free to perform engineering activities with no restrictions.

Unlicensed engineers might object to a potentially unsafe technical decisions or practices, but being unlicensed, they have few options in dealing with these situations. They usual do what they are told, regardless of the consequences. Some would argue that whistle blower protections will address these situations. This is not true; whistle blower laws rarely prevent tragedies, rather these laws usually result in ruined lives. The consequences of this haphazard approach are manifest (e.g. Ford Pinto, Challenger, Kleen Energy, Deepwater Horizon, the list is endless). Imagine if some airline pilots were licensed and some were not, how safe would the flying be? Or some doctors are licensed and some not (recent problems with Veterans Administration were the use of unlicensed doctors at Federal hospitals illustrates this; it was rectified only after exposure on nationwide TV and the Congress acted to require all VA doctors be properly licensed in the State in which they were practicing). In a perfect world we could potentially do without licensure, we do not live in a perfect world.

We are told that engineers are licensed to protect the health, safety and economic welfare of the public; in reality, engineers are licensed to minimize risk associated with economic activity involving the practice of engineering (e.g. bridges, highways, water treatment facilities). The use of licensed professionals is society's recognized approach to limiting risk.

It is essentially impossible to bond a public project unless licensed professionals perform the design activities and oversee the execution of the project. Corporate management and politicians have connived to limit the need for licensed engineers in industrial and government activities. This practice has denied the public the implied protection of having licensed professionals involved in industrial and many government activities that directly or indirectly put the public at risk.

The ability to use unlicensed individuals is referred to as the Industrial and Governmental exemptions in the state engineering practice laws. Industry argues that their engineers do not need to be licensed because other public protections are already in place (e.g. product liability suits). Politicians want the flexibility to reward supporters with government positions or contracts. Neither of these reasons is valid and by allowing the exemptions the public is often unknowingly put at risk. This media further confuses the public by almost always misrepresenting the role of engineers and scientists. Today's journalists do not understand the difference and inaccurately report the roles and responsibilities of these two professions.

The National Academy of Engineering is routinely referred to as "scientists" in the media. Since this is being prepared as an Internet article, where space is not at a premium I will digress for a moment. A good example of what a scientist is can be found at http://ed.fnal.gov/projects/scientists/index.html . Scientists are generally concerned with the discovery of new knowledge. Engineers apply discovered knowledge to our world to create practical solutions to the things society needs. It is the application of this knowledge that can be so dangerous if left to unqualified lay personnel. Some of the scientific disciplines related to the Deepwater Horizon project are biology, geology and oceanography. The scientific input is primarily associated with environmental studies, while the design and operation of the well itself is engineering.

A compliant media often fails to "connect the dots" regarding engineering practice exemptions and the resultant tragedies because they do not understand how things get done. That is, what engineers and what scientists do. Projects overrun costs, oil spills occur, devices fail, and the public has been conditioned to accept these outcomes without stepping back and asking can't we do better?

In the case of the Deepwater Horizon accident, the early investigations have revealed that the Government's Minerals Management Services (MMS) employee who reviewed and approved the drilling permits was not very familiar with basic requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations (30CFR250, 254, 250.442). The submitted BP paperwork was apparently a "copy and paste job" from submittals prepared for Alaska. No one apparently really read the submittals, a professional engineer did not seal the submittals, and the approvers appear to have been no more than political hacks. Investigations have revealed that the MMS was an incompetent organization[ii]. Pretty much like the Veterans Administration hospitals where unlicensed physicians were allowed to treat patients. The results were equally as devastating.

Documents prepared to license high risk projects such as deep water drilling need to be prepared by and under the direct supervision of licensed professional engineers. These submittals need to be signed and sealed, preferably with the statement "I hereby certify that this document was prepared by me or under my direct supervision and that I am a duly licensed professional engineer under the laws of the State of ____ (fill in)". This is the way a true professional submits documents, just as CPAs certify audits they have performed. The drawings and other documents that design these projects need similar attestations (signed and sealed).

Government agencies that review these submittals need licensed engineers to review and approve them. They should be required to approve with similar statements, approvals and seals. In this way the public has reasonable assurances that the individuals preparing, reviewing, implementing and monitoring high risk activities are restrained by appropriate engineering licensure laws. By the way, one can not practice law in Federal courts unless one is approved to do so, while anyone can practice engineering.

In America, it takes a major disaster to spur the necessary momentum to overcome entrenched resistance to change. In 1937, an explosion at a New London, Texas school, killing more than 300 children and teachers, prompted the TexasState legislature to pass laws requiring engineers to be licensed (here).

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Mr. Heneage is a practing electrical and nuclear engineer.

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Was the Deepwater Horizon Accident Caused, In Part, By Exemptions in the Engineering Practice Laws?

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It is often said that the longest distance between... by John Heneage on Saturday, Jul 3, 2010 at 9:54:54 AM
As an engineering graduate practicing for four dec... by Gerald Aksherian on Saturday, Jul 3, 2010 at 10:03:09 PM
Your understanding of the engineering license requ... by John Heneage on Tuesday, Jul 6, 2010 at 1:17:20 PM