The Great Debate

July 5, 2010

Like many Americans, I spent the 4th of July barbequing with friends. Many of them are co-workers of mine of about the same age. Eventually the conversation turned toward current events.  While many people might shy away from potentially divisive issues around the office, I really enjoy a good argument.

Our conversation centered on the roles of the engineers in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  I provocatively questioned whether BP’s engineers deserved blame for the spill.  The room was quickly divided into two camps: those who blamed management’s decisions and those who felt that the engineers failed to adequately explain or investigate the risks of deep sea drilling.  I can assure you that both sides made strong arguments.  The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

One friend pointed out some similarities between deep-sea drilling and engineering of super-tall buildings.  Some of our projects are now so tall that they extend above the well-understood boundary layer into atmospheric heights where wind behavior has not been as thoroughly studied.  Whether we’ve included a large enough safety factor or performed enough analysis are questions worth considering.

Another friend pointed out the importance of building codes in our profession.  In another conversation, the same crowd might have complained mightily about arbitrary reasoning attached to some prescriptive codes, but in this context, we understood that the building code actually gives power to the engineer.  If BP’s engineers could have pointed to an industry sanctioned government accredited code, then they might have had the back-up necessary to discourage management from taking extreme risks to maximize profit.

This conversation helped me see flaws in my own reasoning and armed me with new arguments for a later debate (or blog).  While we did not solve anything, it did help us to re-evaluate our own ethical responsibilities as engineers.  I’m thankful for having the debate, even though I disagreed at times with the arguments being presented.

My initial question was prompted from an online discussion being waged in response to an editorial in ENR’s June Edition: The Gulf Oil-Spill Disaster is Engineering’s Shame.  The writer of the editorial takes the critical viewpoint this is a failure of the engineering profession similar to 3-Mile Island, Challenger and the New Orleans Levees.  That assertion did not bother me.  While poorly supported, it’s a valid opinion – one that stimulated at least the one healthy conversation described above.

I was, however, stunned by the number of engineers who wrote comments to ENR lambasting the decision to publish an opinion that “attacks its own constituents in such a wreckless [sic], unfounded and haphazard manner.”  Anonymous wrote, “This editorial reflects incredible naivete [sic] and IGNORANCE about engineering, and ignorance [sic] the power structures in global business and economics.”  To me, that’s exactly why we need to have the discussion.  Kudos to ENR for having the courage to offer the profession an opportunity to have fruitful debate.  Perhaps this discussion will enable the profession to take on the prevailing attitudes in engineering and business that allowed this preventable disaster to occur.

Currently this conversation is continuing among the columnists for the Journal of Leadership and Management in Engineering (LME).  Please share your own comments here.  How much blame do engineers deserve for their role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

 

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1 Comment
  • Ken,

    Enjoyed your post and was intrigued by your reference to similarities between deep-sea drilling and tall building engineering. Glad to hear the ENR opinion piece stimulated debate at your barbecue. I’m just starting to assist ENR with covering the New England region and stumbled on your blog while visiting ASCE’s Web site. Stay in touch.

    Johanna

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