They’ve already started recovering the corpses of oil-poisoned dolphins, sea turtles and birds from the troubled waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Another casualty in this slowly unfolding catastrophe is the reputation of the engineering profession—and not just petroleum and oil-drilling platform engineers, who certainly have much to regret about the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The disaster affects the reputation of all engineers.

The Gulf Oil-Spill Disaster Is Engineering’s Shame 52/49
Photo: AP/Wideworld

What’s happening now in the Gulf is another failure for a profession already deeply afflicted with an identity crisis and which questions its role in U.S. society. Part of the problem stems from much-publicized disasters of years past, like the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Five short years after the flooding of New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is prompting questions about the failure of engineers either to foresee risks or invent a quick fix.

Blame engineers for some of the mess; certainly BP engineers failed to see the need for viable backups for blowout preventers. Engineers also failed to stand up for higher-cost measures that might have headed off the trouble just before the explosion.

In other areas of the world, engineers have a responsibility to come forward about oil spills. For example, petroleum and pipeline engineers must be aware that in Nigeria, over the course of many years, an environmental disaster has been in the making as oil was spilled by accident or sabotage from that resource-rich country’s network of pipelines. But little has been reported about it.

In the defense of engineers, it is true they have never been more squeezed for time and resources and never had fewer prerogatives in the face of corporate and governmental power. The whole matter is complicated by fragmented decision-making within firms and among companies. Yet the very definition of engineering as a profession involves an obligation to the greater good of society. The profession prides itself on civic virtue and requires individuals to have a functioning conscience. The profession’s associations should be willing to boldy speak out.

The U.S. hasn’t reconciled the idea that engineers can render miracles—cloud-piercing towers, low-cost instantaneous digital communication, deepsea drilling—with the idea that each fresh miracle hurls us into unfamiliar territory. The key issue isn’t that the Gulf oil spill has violated expectations of a quick technological fix; it’s that engineering by its nature produces new risks. We’ve punctured the seabed a mile down but can’t stop the hemorrhaging.

If engineers help each other protect against corporate power and technological overreaching, the profession may reclaim lost esteem. Otherwise, the Gulf of Mexico always will be remembered as the place where engineering prestige dipped to a new low in an age known for disasters as much as for progress.