Six Years Later, Final Deepwater Horizon Rules Increase PE Role

July/August 2016

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Six Years Later, Final Deepwater Horizon Rules Increase PE Role

BY ARIELLE EISER
Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster
Licensed professional engineers have an increased role in protecting the public health, safety, and welfare under new federal regulations developed in response to the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster.

On April 29, 2016, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced the final comprehensive safety regulations developed in response to the disaster that began in April 2010. The initial explosion took place aboard an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and resulted in 11 deaths. The blowout discharged an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil over 87 days. The final rule, which consolidates several recommendations from multiple investigations, establishes improved protocols to increase safety measures.

Specifically, in the final rulemaking (Oil and Gas and Sulfur Operations in the Outer Continental Shelf Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control), the BSEE requires a PE in cementing and casing situations to examine, review, approve, and certify changes or remedial measures. For example, the final rule requires PE certification for changes to casing setting depth or hole interval drilling depth and changes to the well program due to an inadequate cement job.

This comprehensive, detailed rule brings to an end a massive six-year effort to develop and implement safety rules after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Throughout this process, NSPE has been advocating for a key role for professional engineers. In December 2010, NSPE provided remarks to the Chemical Safety Board on this issue. The testimony stated, “Licensed professional engineers should have direct supervision over all engineering design, operations, and maintenance of offshore oil rigs. Professional engineers are licensed by the government, which requires them to meet and maintain an acceptable standard of competence. Professional engineers are also bound by a code of ethics to make decisions only in their areas of expertise. Most critically, professional engineers are ethically obligated to protect public health and safety above all other concerns…. Because of their proven competence and commitment to the public health and safety, NSPE recommends that offshore oil rigs employ professional engineers to supervise all engineering design, operations, and maintenance decisions.”

On April 2015, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement announced its proposed draft rule, which included the proposed requirement for a licensed PE in cementing and casing situations to examine, review, approve, and certify changes or remedial measures. NSPE submitted a public comment commending the agency for proposing this critical requirement but also calling on the agency to reconsider NSPE’s request for a licensed PE to have direct supervision over all engineering design, operations, and maintenance of offshore oil rigs.

Although the final rule did not include a requirement for a licensed PE to have direct supervision over all engineering work aboard an offshore oil rig, the requirement for a licensed PE in cementing and casing situations to examine, review, approve, and certify changes or remedial measures is a significant victory for the profession and, most importantly, it enhances the public health, safety, and welfare.

NSPE, Alaska Society Challenge Agency’s View of the PE

NSPE and the Alaska Society of Professional Engineers are questioning a federal rule designed to improve health and sanitation in rural and Native villages in Alaska because the rule challenges the value and integrity of the PE.

On April 13, NSPE and ASPE submitted a joint letter regarding comments made by the Rural Utilities Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, as part of its final rule for Section 306D Water Systems for Rural and Native Villages in Alaska. Although the rule is final, NSPE and ASPE believed a response was necessary to clarify the role that PEs play in helping rural villages.

In response to the rule’s unfounded and inaccurate remarks challenging the integrity and judgment of professional engineers, NSPE President Tim Austin, P.E., F.NSPE, and ASPE President Angela Smith, P.E., wrote: “Regardless of position or employer, all PEs are held to the same high standard of ethical behavior and are subject to the same penalties if they violate those standards. Ultimately, RUS and professional engineers, publicly or privately employed, share a common purpose: to protect the public health, safety, and welfare, in this instance by determining whether Alaskan rural villages need new sanitation systems to provide basic but essential services such as clean water infrastructure. NSPE asks RUS to reconsider its comments, not only as [they apply] in this particular instance, but in similar situations across the United States.”

As an immediate result of this letter, the Rural Utilities Service has contacted its engineering department to review.