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Oil spill presents opportunity for sustainable change

June 16, 2010

It has been gut-wrenching watching the BP oil spill tragedy unfold in the gulf and my heart goes out to the residents of this area who are facing the prospect of their lives and livelihood being forever changed.

From a purely technical perspective I've tried my best to reserve judgment and dispassionately ponder the appropriate allocation of fate and blame. Clearly there are some disturbing revelations and allegations concerning corner cutting and risk taking. At the same time, I fully understand deep water undersea drilling is undoubtedly an incredibly complex undertaking which exists in some part to support our societies' lifestyle - not to mention the jobs of countless workers in the chain leading from the gulf sea floor directly to my car's gas cap.

I am reminded of Henry Petroki's brilliant book - "to engineer is human." In it, Petroski - a civil engineer by training - speaks of the roll of failure in successful design and eloquently reminds us that all technical human progress involves risk. And while risk begets failure - often spectacularly or tragically - these failures provide a unique opportunity to advance our understanding, knowledge, and practice in a way not easily duplicated through success.

Through all of recorded history - and undoubtedly before, there have been a litany of terrible tragedies - the Tacoma Narrows Bridge , the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the space Shuttle Endeavor, the sinking of the Valdez, Hurricane Katrina, Hyatt Regency Tragedy and now sadly the BP gulf spill.

While risk begets failure, these failures provide a unique opportunity to advance our knowledge in a way not easily duplicated through success.

Predictably, and perhaps appropriately, certain individuals will rise up to offer castigation, place blame and seek retribution. Conversely - there are others that will claim fate, misfortune, inevitability or just plain bad luck provide allowances and shrug these occurrences off as "just one of those things".

Meanwhile, time has shown that though each of these tragedies, yet a third group of individuals will thoughtfully seek deep understanding through careful study, analysis, reflection and use this understanding to refine designs, policies and regulations. Ultimately I believe it is this response - far more than denial, excuses or witch hunts and political posturing - that leads to true benefit and progress.

The Tacoma Narrows gave us safer bridges. The Titanic gave us lifeboat regulations, the Valdez gave us double-hulled tankers and the oil spill prevention act, Katrina may rebuild the levies. It's possible the BP Gulf tragedy - as painful as it is - will undoubtedly give us safer undersea drilling and may yet be a catalyst to a more sustainable energy policy based on renewable and environmentally responsible technologies.