Asee peer logo

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: An Ethics Case Study in Environmental Engineering

Download Paper |


2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Case and Scenario in Engineering Ethics Instruction

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Jonathan Beever University of Central Florida Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Jonathan Beever is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and faculty with the Texts & Technology Program at The University of Central Florida. He has held postdoctoral positions with Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute and with Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering before joining UCF. He has held fellowships with the Kaufmann Foundation, the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and the Global Sustainable Soundscape Network and has had research funded by the National Science Foundation. Jonathan's research focuses on questions of ethics, science, and representation. He teaches a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on related topics.

visit author page


Justin L Hess IUPUI, Indianapolis Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Justin L. Hess received his PhD from Purdue University's School of Engineering Education along with his Master's of Science and Bachelor of Science from Purdue's School of Civil Engineering. Justin is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the STEM Education Research Institute at IUPUI. Justin's research interests include developing pedagogical strategies to improve STEM students' ethical reasoning skills; exploring the role of empathy within design, innovation and sustainability; synthesizing the influence of societal and individual worldviews on decision-making; assessing STEM students' learning in the spaces of design, ethics, and sustainability; and exploring the impact of pre-engineering curriculum on students' abilities and career trajectories.

visit author page

Download Paper |


The April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion was an engineering and environmental tragedy that led to the loss of 11 human lives and has had far-reaching environmental and economic impacts, the full extent of which is difficult if not impossible to calculate. In 2015 the explosion continues to impact those 11 individual’s families; it continues to have a far-reaching emotional impact on the 115 men and women on board at the time of the catastrophe; scientists are still evaluating the environmental impacts of both the oil dispersion throughout the gulf and the oil dispersant used to curtail the spill at surface depths. Simultaneously, gulf business owners, particularly those who rely on gulf waters for their livelihoods, continue to struggle. This novel and far-reaching real-world disaster is particularly salient for use within engineering curricula due to its inherently complex interplay of ethical issues and the broad scope of stakeholders impacted by the initial disaster and its aftermath.

We have developed and refined this real-world case study with students participating in a graduate level course at Purdue University over three separate years and five course offerings. We designed this case study within a unique pedagogical framework that leads students to reflectively adopt varying stakeholders’ perspectives in order to reason through the case within a team setting. As a final goal, students must decide the appropriateness of continuing deepwater drilling throughout the Gulf of Mexico in light of the human, economic, environmental, and social implications of future potential blowouts. As part of the broader ethics course in which this case is embedded, we selected this case as it provides a uniquely broader scope of stakeholders and a more specific focus on the principles of nonmaleficence and justice when compared to the other cases presented to students. Specifically, this case asks students to consider a broad range of stakeholders. Whereas many engineering ethics case studies focus on human stakeholders and corporations, here the focus also includes marine and aquatic life, challenging a narrowly anthropocentric focus by placing environmental issues as a focal point. In this sense, our focus pushes beyond other case studies in ethics by addressing both macro-ethical issues, where students are encouraged to adopt a broadened societal viewpoint to deduce the most ethical courses of action, and micro-ethical issues, where the focus is towards the professional obligations of an individual engineer, through a scaffolded staged pedagogy.

In this paper we present the case structure and pedagogy to argue for the relevance of this unique, novel, and effective case for increasing engineering students’ ethical reasoning abilities, particularly broadening their awareness of the scope of stakeholders impacted by engineering decisions and their ability to empathize with those stakeholders.

Beever, J., & Hess, J. L. (2016, June), Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: An Ethics Case Study in Environmental Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26647

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2016 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015