In his testimony during a July hearing in Kenner, La., about the Gulf oil spill, BP’s well team leader, Alexander John Guide, was asked about his relevant work experience. In his 10 years at BP, Guide said he had led many well-drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. He also had regularly refreshed his knowledge of well control in training sessions.

Then the attorney asked Guide if he had an engineering license. The answer was a simple no.

Lost in the chain of individual decisions that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout explosion that killed 11 workers and the uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf has been any measurable official concern about the relationship among ethics, cost and credentials. When the issue is discussed, it is only in terms of whether BP or Transocean, the drilling rig’s owner and operator, or Halliburton Co., the cement contractor, cut corners and sacrificed safety for money.

Exactly who drew up the well’s basic design for the Macondo site, where the Deepwater Horizon was working, isn’t yet clear; investigators may in fact assign blame for design flaws to licensed engineers.

But the well was in a constant state of change, blurring the lines of responsibility between BP and Transocean. No one appears to have redrawn the overall risk picture created by all the changes. And no one sketched in many of the missing details needed to put the well into a safe condition as BP and Transocean anticipated moving the Deepwater Horizon drilling vessel to another job.

The scanty details of the Macondo well’s abandonment plan “showed a lack of engineering resources,” says Steve Lewis, a drilling engineer with Seldovia Marine Services. He testified before an investigating commission in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9.

Would licensed engineers have signed off on so many seat-of-the-pants decisions?

The bigger issue, left unmentioned, is why one needs a state license to snip bangs in a barbershop but not a license to reconfigure wells and drilling procedures one mile down in the Gulf of Mexico (U.S. Interior Dept. approval is required for some changes).

Put another way, why do state laws exempt many manufacturers and industries from the laws requiring professional engineers (PEs) to oversee, prepare and approve design documents? And why have states and engineers surrendered dominion to industry and federal regulators over areas of practice where peril to public health and the economy is thousands of times greater than an average property survey or drainage-culvert design?

Licensed engineers aren’t the only ones who have raised the issue of licensing and technical qualifications for offshore drilling.

Mark Hafle
Mark Hafle
BP’s senior drilling engineer

A graduate of Marietta College in Ohio with a B.S. in petroleum engineering, Hafle described his job as taking geological data from a well and the area around it and coming up with reasonable assumptions about fracture gradients and design issues, such as the number of casing strings that a well design would need.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued an interim drilling safety rule for outer-continental-shelf oil-and-gas operations. The rule requires PE certification of both the well-bore casing and cementing program—prime suspects in the Deepwater Horizon investigation—and the two independent test barriers across each flow path during well-completion.

Drilling rig supervisors can’t be trusted completely with calculating the risks, suggests one engineer in a posted comment on, a website and discussion forum created by the Institute for Energy and Our Future, a non-profit corporation. The engineer, in a debate about whether licensed engineers could have helped avert the disaster, said some rig supervisors may have only high school degrees and on-the-job training. “[They are] great at observation, but without the proper technical grounding, [they] cannot properly attribute true cause and effect,” the engineer wrote.

Calculations are the best guide in decisions about safety. “Nothing substitutes for sound [first-principle] engineering and calculations,” he wrote.

Where Exemptions Originated

Using more licensed engineers, according to an optimistic view, could protect the public from all kinds of calamities, from gas-leak explosions to tainted food. If more products and systems needed a PE’s sign-off, injuries and illnesses from all kinds of product failures and safety breakdowns could be avoided, some advocates of more licensing suggest.

In the absence of a license, product liability laws should provide sufficient safeguards against substandard engineering practice.

But liability laws only help after someone has been injured. “Liability is matter for courts to decide after the fact,” says A. Leonard Timms, president of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, the national non-profit organization that advances licensed engineering practice.

It remains unclear exactly where the different licensure exemptions granted by the states originated. One view is that industries wanted engineers to be loyal organization men and women, not independent-minded professionals.

Arthur Schwartz, chief counsel and deputy executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), believes politics, the influence of major employers and other, local factors were likely in play during the often contentious process of enacting licensure laws in the first half of the 20th Century.

“You can speculate that some companies didn’t want to see employees licensed because then there would be a question of whether they were obligated to the employer,...