Professional Engineer (PE) licensure + strengthened federal whistleblower protection = prevention of future offshore drilling disasters

Guest Blogger: Joe Carson, PE, Chairman OSC Watch Steering Committee, multiple  time “prevailing” whistleblower in Department of Energy

As a Professional Engineer (PE), I am a “mandated reporter” about public/workplace health and safety issues related to my professional duties – when necessary, I have a positive legal and professional obligation to “blow whistles," to appropriate authorities, regardless of employer or  possible employer retribution.  If I “look the other way,” out of fear of reprisal, my PE license can be permanently revoked.   Additionally, the Department of Energy (DOE) knew I was a PE when it hired me, in fact I cited my PE status to establish my eligibility for my job.  Because I could point to my positive legal obligation to “blow whistles” as a PE, and because concerns were valid, enough people in DOE stood by me – allowing me to “prevail,” multiple times, against others in DOE who wanted to destroy my career.

Connecting this to the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (and many other engineering-related accidents or disasters involving federal engineers), the Mineral Management Services (MMS), just as other federal agencies, does not, as a rule, require its engineers to be PE’s.  Instead, they invoke the “federal exemption,” by which States cannot impose licensure requirements on federal employees who would otherwise be licensed.  But federal agencies can impose this requirement on themselves – and if they do not, Congress or OPM can impose it on them.  

Frank Patton is the unlicensed MMS engineer who approved the BP drilling plan.  During his May 11, 2010 testimony (see pages 252-314) to the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation, he admitted, (see pages 274-76),  that he failed to ensure the BP Drilling Plan complied with federal regulation at 30 C.F.R. §250.416(e), because it did not contain the required information about the design and performance adequacy of the blow-out preventer.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which live-blogged the hearing, described his testimony here.
If MMS required its engineers to be PE’s, then Mr. Patton would have been required to “blow whistles,” publicly if necessary, to prevent BP’s inadequate drilling plan from being approved.   This could well has resulted in his being fired or otherwise discriminated against at MMS, given widespread, longstanding, MMS corruption.  However, had MMS required Mr. Patton to be a PE, then anyone could now file a professional misconduct complaint against him with the Louisiana Professional Engineering Licensing Board <>, for his professional negligence/incompetence in approving a plan that failed to comply with federal regulation.  If he lost his PE license as a result, then MMS could fire him.  If he had been a PE, Frank Patton would have made sure the BP drilling plan contained the required information about its blowout preventer and perhaps this unprecedented disaster is averted.

Federal agencies can readily implement policy requiring their engineers to be PE’s (with appropriate grandfathering).  Federal PE’s who risk their careers to do their duty to protect others need and deserve viable whistleblower protection and the current system to protect concerned federal PE’s, as other federal employees, is broken.   

The federal government has a duty to protect American health and safety, at work and elsewhere, including our environment.  PE’s, by law, must “hold paramount the health, safety and welfare of the public in the performance of professional duty.”  That federal agencies exempt their engineers from having the legal obligations of PE’s is nonsensical and a contributing cause to the disaster the Gulf and many other accidents and disasters, such as the recent Upper Big Branch mine disaster which killed 29 in West Virginia.

Here is a formula we can all live with:

Federal PE licensure + reformed federal whistleblower protection = much improved workplace and public health and safety in America.

* Guest Blogger Joe Carson, PE, is a multiple time “prevailing” federal whistleblower and nuclear safety engineer in the Department of Energy (DOE).  His being a PE has been an essential factor in his “prevailing” as a whistleblower remaining productively employed.   His 18 year- long saga of upholding, defending and advancing his profession of engineering, its code of ethics, and the public health and safety – together with the merit system principles of the federal civil service – now has him at the Supreme Court, in what could be the most important federal whistleblower case since 1994, if not 1979.   The case, and the underlying story, are described here. Mr. Carson is currently the Chairman of the OSC Watch Steering Committee.