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.