Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, a Solution That Requires Professional Engineers

July/August 2015

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
Five Years After Deepwater Horizon, a Solution That Requires Professional Engineers

BY ARIELLE EISER

On April 17, five years to the week after the initial explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that resulted in 11 deaths and the discharge of 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement published a new proposed regulation to “better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills.” The measures include more stringent design requirements and operational procedures for critical well control equipment used in offshore oil and gas operations. This proposed rule would be the third new regulation issued by the Obama administration in response to the 2010 oil spill, but in many ways it is the most significant.

The culmination of years of stakeholder meetings, committee hearings, and in-depth investigations, the proposed rule requires a professional engineer in cementing and casing situations to examine, review, approve, and certify changes or remedial measures. In an April 30 letter of public comment, NSPE commended the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for taking this important step and recognizing the professional engineer’s vital role in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare.

NSPE further urged that, in considering the final rule, the agency incorporate NSPE’s 2010 recommendation to the Chemical Safety Board to require that licensed professional engineers have direct supervision over all engineering design, operations, and maintenance of offshore oil rigs. Offshore oil drilling is an inherently risky activity and, as the BP oil spill demonstrated, an accident exposes the public and environment to potential catastrophe. The combined high-risk nature of offshore drilling and the possibility for disaster necessitate an additional degree of protection that only licensed professional engineers provide. This requirement would not only improve the safety of offshore drilling, but also minimize the potential for disaster.

Fortunately, it will not be another five years before the proposed regulation is finalized. The draft rule was opened to public comment for 60 days, closing on June 16, and is expected to be finalized later this year, incorporating the additional feedback. Although rules of this nature tend to be rather controversial, in this particular instance, interested stakeholders have worked closely with the Department of the Interior on creating a comprehensive rule that can be accepted by all parties.

This proposed rule comes only days after the Coast Guard, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, issued an alarming rule that would allow unlicensed, foreign engineers to perform engineering services that should be performed only by a professional engineer in the licensing of deepwater ports. NSPE has responded with a vigorous call to action in opposition.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s proposed rule takes steps to address the circumstances and failures that resulted in the worst oil spill in our nation’s history. One of the key takeaways was the need for the use of qualified individuals, namely professional engineers, to play a critical role in ensuring the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. NSPE strongly believes that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s leadership on this issue is further evidence as to why the Coast Guard rule must be changed. NSPE will continue to proactively advocate on this matter and keep members updated.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE’s senior government relations manager.

Design-Build Legislation Introduced in 114th Congress

Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) recently introduced H.R. 1666, the Design-Build Efficiency and Jobs Act of 2015. This legislation reintroduces Grave’s design-build measure from the 113th Congress, which NSPE endorsed.

H.R. 1666 protects the integrity of the federal procurement process and enables small and large businesses alike to compete for federal construction contracts. As stated in NSPE Position Statement No. 1726 on design-build in the public sector, NSPE recognizes that more than one project delivery system may meet an owner’s project requirements. Factors such as safety, function, time from conception to completion, capital and life-cycle costs, environmental quality, and appearance will each play a role in the owner’s decision. Accordingly, NSPE acknowledges the role these factors play and neither advocates nor opposes design-build. When design-build is the selected approach, NSPE strongly encourages use of the two-step method. This method requires that the design team’s qualifications be part of the evaluation process. This method ensures that competent and qualified design professionals are initially involved in the procurement process so that quality-based design considerations are incorporated into the drawings, plans, and specifications, consistent with the interests of the public health and safety.

NSPE commends Congressman Graves for working to improve the federal laws pertaining to design-build.