Safety First


December 2010

Safety First

High-risk industries like nuclear energy and oil and gas, NSPE argues, could benefit from greater involvement by PEs.


Safety FirstIn August and September, NSPE leaders told the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future that professional engineers should have direct supervision over all engineering design, operations, and maintenance decisions at nuclear power plants.

The high-risk nature of the nuclear energy industry calls for an additional degree of protection. NSPE President Michael Hardy, P.E., F.NSPE, and Executive Director Larry Jacobson emphasized that professional engineers are licensed by the government, which requires them to meet and maintain an acceptable standard of competence. Hardy and Jacobson also noted that PEs are bound by a code of ethics to make decisions only in their areas of expertise and are ethically obligated to put the public health and safety above all other concerns.

Like the nuclear industry, the oil and gas industry involves operations that can put the public and the environment at grave risk, yet its engineering design, operations, and maintenance are often not directly supervised by professional engineers. BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore rig explosion earlier this year killed 11, injured 17, and sent an estimated 200 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months before the well was capped. The environmental disaster, one of the worst in U.S. history, led the Department of the Interior to declare a six-month moratorium on deep water oil drilling. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar lifted the ban only on the condition that companies comply with numerous new requirements.

Under the new Drilling Safety Rule, PEs must certify that well casing and cementing are appropriate for their intended purposes under expected wellbore pressure and that at least two independent test barriers exist across each flow path during well-completion activities. Although these regulations begin to put professional engineers in decision-making positions related to offshore drilling, they do not go far enough. To protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public and the environment, PEs should be required to supervise all engineering design, operations, and maintenance of offshore rigs.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling declared offshore drilling an inherently risky operation. The commission cited a Norwegian audit of multiple platforms and offshore operations, which found that there was "a general lack of skilled, knowledgeable, or experienced supervisory personnel" across the industry. Because many companies operating in the North Sea also operate in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic, these problems likely stretch to U.S. waters. Moreover, the commission found that an error made by one company affects the entire industry due to its "far-reaching economic and environmental damage across a variety of industries and stakeholders."

Two overwhelming issues bar professional engineers from taking the helm on offshore rigs: oil and gas industry exemptions and the lack of state licensing board authority. Strong lobbying by the oil and gas industry earned engineers exemptions from various state laws in states including Alaska, Louisiana, and Texas. NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry opposes these exemptions. In the absence of state board authority, the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement should enforce regulations requiring the use of professional engineers; however, the Oil Spill Commission found that BOEMRE failed to exercise effective oversight of deepwater drilling risks. BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich has announced that BOEMRE plans to add as many as 200 new inspectors, engineers, environmental scientists, and other key staff to strengthen the agency's inspection program.

Fresh off the moratorium, the oil and gas industry is planning to explore frontiers outside the Gulf, including the Arctic, introducing new safety challenges. The commission found that, despite the remarkable leaps in technology for offshore drilling, there have not been comparable developments in safety technology for these challenging new environments. To preserve public and environmental health and safety, professional engineers must be accepted as important decision makers as the oil and gas industry continues to advance.

Interestingly, as drilling resumes, the Department of the Interior is taking an individual-responsibility approach that is familiar to PEs: The CEO of each company must personally certify that the company has complied with all regulations, including the new drilling safety rules.

Tell us what you think about industrial exemptions: Read Craig Musselman's blogs on the topic by going to and searching on "industrial exemption," and leave your comments.