Here at The Civil Engineering Exam, we constantly learn from each other and try to make sure our skills stay sharp. So here is an ICE Communication Task example to give an idea of what a good passing standard looks like.

Afterwards, Tim Lai will give his reflections on writing this essay, the key aspects you should try to reproduce in your own attempts and also what he could have done better.

There is a perception in some quarters that oil exploration and production harms the environment. Discuss how civil engineers can play a key role in mitigating the impact and altering this perception.

by Tim Lai, February 2016


In April 2010 the world’s spotlight was shone onto the largest manmade environmental disaster to have ever occurred in the world. In the middle of the night, The Deepwater Horizon drill ship was performing routine exploration work on the Macondo Prospect and a surge in subsurface pressure caused a massive explosion on the ship, which caused millions of barrels of oil to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

For nearly three months the general public were bombarded with extremely distressing pictures of sea life covered in thick crude oil and a large proportion of Southern USA had its pristine shoreline irreversibly damaged by a manmade event.

A few years later the Federal Bureau of Safety for the US declared that none of the contributing events were caused by civil engineers. Yet in the oil industry, every person regardless of skill is judged by its weakest performer.

In the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Code of Conduct, there is the explicit requirement of Rule 4 that all members “show due regard for the environment and for the sustainable management of natural resources”. From my experience working at the forefront of academic research in pipeline integrity and as a structural engineer for one of the world’s largest Petrochemical Operators, this essay discusses how I feel civil engineers can take the industry forward in two particular ways. Firstly about mitigating the impact of the negative perception about harm to the environment. Secondly it addresses some steps towards altering and thus improving the perception from here forth.

Mitigation of impact

The UN Summit of Stockholm in 1972 on Human Environment set 26 Principles that mankind should adhere to in order to create an environmentally sustainable planet. Its chairperson, Harlem Brundtland is attributed to coining a key guideline for all persons of every walk of life to follow:

“Sustainability development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The 26 Principles from the Declaration of the Conference are broadly set out in 5 themes:

  1. The requirements for a dignified human existence and the comfort levels associated with it.
  2. The global economy should facilitate progress towards a better environment
  3. Environmental considerations should play an integral part of development planning
  4. Forming and allowing the right people and organisations to perform research towards sustainable development and then keeping the public educated
  5. Each signatory country’s obligations to its neighbours and the necessity of co-operation.

Since the Stockholm Conference, there have been further high-profile gatherings at Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Kyoto, Doha and Paris which set further specific measures and targets (and in some cases legally-binding) for signatory parties to cut their emissions.

With the correct framework and cooperation with governments ranging from local all the way to international scale, civil engineers can and have a duty to play a crucial part in all of the above themes.

Civil engineers must provide expert opinion and analysis to policy makers on the effect of major infrastructural projects – often no more controversial than those in the oil sector. Indeed if a body which represents a petroleum industry could be visibly led by a civil engineer, then we may see decisions not purely driven by money at the (perceived) detriment to the environment. We have to look no further than that National Infrastructure Commission as recently formed in the UK which has as one of their commissioners none other than the current President of the ICE to provide a leading steer.

Expert analysis from civil engineers can produce key performance indicators for projects such as embodied CO2 or predicted Greenhouse Gas emissions, but the real skill is to generate engineering solutions which create a sustainable balance from the initiation to completion of the project. The sustainability can lie in any of the three pillars of environmental, social and economical, but any intended bias towards one of the three pillars can be closely communicated with policy and decision makers.

In the Netherlands one of the most recent and significant offshore gas field discoveries in the mid-1980s showed that the calorific content of the gas was significantly higher than those from previously discovered fields. This created a dilemma for the Dutch Government and engineers at the time. How should the energy infrastructure of the country be managed to meet this new enormous reserve, or vice versa?

In balancing the three pillars of sustainability and to help manage the cashflow of the sovereign wealth, civil engineers would have needed to cooperate with petroleum engineers and policy makers needed to have analyse multiple conflicting parameters. What solution generates the lowest gas usage overall? How much more gas is there in the existing reserves? How certain are we of these estimates? How much would it cost to re-fit boilers in every house of the country? How would the answers to all these questions change if the oil or gas price changed significantly?

Ultimately, if civil engineers are not in the position of being decision makers for a government, then it is his/her remit to inform, give impartial advice and present a range of suitable solutions with their positive or negative effects . If the civil engineer is in the situation of being a decision maker (such as the National Infrastructure Commission), then in addition to the above duties, there is another equally important job – public engagement and communication.

Altering Public Perception

Extremely tough decisions and sacrifices on multi-billion dollar projects have to be taken once in a while, and the modern trend in communication is that the public media effectively drives a politician’s re-election. It has a potential to create a conflict of interest such that the politician may be driven by the need to spin sound-bites and media attention, compared to what may be holistically ‘best’ for a  controversial project such as the development of an oil prospect.

Such large scale oil projects has many stages each taking many years. It is fairly common for the timespan from exploration to first oil to last one or two decades. These phases, along with a civil engineer’s career, is likely to span multiple administrations of governments where they will no doubt have schizophrenically differing agendas and priorities. There is therefore an unintended moral and professional duty to uphold the decisions of their employer, enterprise and governments of the day even if they are conflicting in intent. It should therefore seem sensible that civil engineers must form an integral part of making those decisions and disseminate the information to the wider public to promote healthy two-way feedback.

Where engineers commonly fall short is their ability to communicate complex technical ideas to non-technical audiences. Despite communication being a highly valued skill and necessary in nearly every engineering body in the world, the public figureheads of civil engineering (and perhaps engineering in general) are still often seen to be monotonous, intelligent but incommunicable and emotionally stimulated by things which are not necessarily fashionable in the status quo.

Oil projects, whose inherent environmental controversy generates news headlines around the world, will for the foreseeable future be subject to many heated arguments and endless scrutiny. Where human emotions start to interfere with the debate, all the required logic and constructive feedback is often rendered futile. Perhaps being naturally risk averse, civil engineers should undertake further training in hostile public encounters to ameliorate such scenarios.

Where emotions are driven by mass media, engineers should be able to act as an impartial focal point between journalists and enterprises. This could take the shape of Non-Government Organisations or other legal/charitable entities but the engineer must be free to speak his/her mind without fear of repercussions. Much like how an expert witness is summoned by Court.

In recent times ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ have been used by the public interchangeably and synonymously. As hinted at earlier by the three pillars analogy, the layman public should also be well informed of the social and economic considerations of a project too.

Where an oil production site may not necessarily create the most environmentally friendly situation in its current form when (in my opinion unfairly) compared to other ‘green’ projects, the vast economic benefits from tax and royalty revenues as well as the social benefits of creating regional employment and training several generations of skilled labour may lead to more projects where the environmental effects aggregated over these many projects can lead to a net positive environmental result. Civil engineers will need to keep urging the public to see the bigger picture around them.

Since the ICE and numerous other engineering bodies started its public campaigns such as those which encourage school children, minority demographics or women into STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) there has been a greater public awareness and celebration of engineering. A few decades ago there may not have been many people who knew many of the technological titans of past and present. Alan Turing, Marie Curie, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bill Gates. In recent times the Royal Academy of Engineering has two oil/gas industry seniors as their President – Denis Rooke and John Browne.


The key areas that civil engineers will need to improve upon are the collaboration with policy and decision makers, and to interact more with the wider public about all the pillars of sustainable development.

While the oil industry can still suffer from an image of environmental chaos, with the rise of user-generated mass media and international government collaborations such as the recent Paris summit, there has never been a better opportunity for civil engineers working in the petroleum industry to create public awareness and debate of the benefits or disadvantages of their work.

Tim discusses the essay further…

When I finished writing this and read it through, I knew it would be fine – it certainly meets the “tidy first draft” requirement that ICE use as their passing standard. As confident as it sounds, professional engineers (even students) need to get into the habit of checking their work as they go along. I timed myself and kept to the 2 hours as mandated by ICE. My approximate breakdown of timing was as follows:

  • Planning and structure – 20 mins
  • Writing the essay – 1hr 35 mins
  • Checking – 5 mins.

I will be the first to admit that the essay has areas of improvement, but as a passing standard for CEng it is sufficient. With about 15 minutes to go, I had not even started writing my conclusion, so I had to make the trade off and accept that the conclusion would be a bit rough if I were to have enough time to proof-read the rest. Due to the shortage of time, I could only check for obvious spelling and grammatical mistakes, and leaving off anything which requires re-phrasing a sentence. Hence a couple of sentences do sound clumsy, but that is the difference between “A tidy first draft” and “ready for publication”.

I would have liked least 10 to 15 minutes for proof reading, so those extra minutes need to be subtracted from somewhere like the planning, for which large portions can be prepared at home before you arrive for your Written Exercise. (Obviously you will not know the question in advance, but you can prepare lots of useful information ahead).

Things you should try to take forward to your review

You will note that the Introduction starts off with a narrative feel. This is a nice way to set the tone, and lead the reader into the rest of the essay. I chose one of the most recent oil disasters as something to remind the reader of our collective obligation to society. The last paragraph describes my working position and therefore any stance or bias for the rest of the essay. You could probably imagine if Greenpeace or someone who was not an engineer wrote this, then the arguments put forward would be different.

I decided to use broad headings to allow my argument to develop within. For things like a technical report I might use more rigid sub-headings, but this exercise is meant to act as a creative or expressive piece of writing, so broader headings it was. You will also note that on several occasions I have expressed my opinion which is critical to passing. As a candidate for CEng level you will need to demonstrate your capacity to lead the industry, which in the case of an essay which has “discuss” in its title, will mean giving your personal opinion. Sometimes candidates fear that this will work against them if the examiner does not like it, but it is the opposite that is true. You will only be marked down if your opinion is not supported by well-reasoned logic or evidence. The examiner cannot fail you for disagreeing with your opinion alone.

You should also note I have dropped in several references to demonstrate breadth of knowledge and reading outside my work. This is expected of all candidates and forms part of Attribute 9 and your Continuous Professional Development. You will not have time to do a proper references table system at the end, so you should just mention them in the body of the text as you go along.

Things to improve

Obviously the conclusion is short and somewhat abrupt. As explained, I did not have enough time to write more. What would I have done if I had the time? I may have continued the Macondo Well story from the introduction in a similar narrative style. Alternatively I may have invented a new short story on the same theme, something along the lines of:

It is now the year 2030 and Sarah Jones is receiving her degree certificate on stage in front of hundreds of applauding parents. The Chancellor warmly congratulates her for a brilliant degree classification – First Class Masters of Civil Engineering – and everyone settles to hear valedictorian speech. Three hours after the event, the truth is not many remember what she has said, except for the nugget of information that inspired her into the industry.

As a little girl at a weekend government-sponsored STEM event she had learned about the Macondo Well incident and had felt so disgusted by its aftermath that she had been compelled to dedicate her career to the betterment of society and civil engineering. Many of the parents, also civil engineers, attending empathised with her. They too were graduates around the time of the 2010 incident and had felt a sense of pride that their efforts to communicate to the next generation were bearing fruits of their labour.

…and then continued on with the original conclusion (with some minor modifications) from the original essay.

Quality Check

To be extra sure of my thoughts, I sought feedback from Mike Rogers to confirm my thoughts. Here are some of his comments

In my view an acceptable Written Exercise at the CEng level

  • A well presented WE with a clear layout and structure
  • A good introduction and good links to personal role as well as the global challenges
  • Good to see a discussion with points of view being made
  • The WE was an interesting read and contained some good references

Just a minor point and very minor in reality, the conclusion could have been a little stronger in pulling the threads together but this is not a big concern.

As you can see, the feedback is in line with what I expected.


This page has presented a whole Written Exercise submission to the level of CEng and discussions on strong points and possible improvements. You should keep practising writing essays, especially if English is not your first language or if writing does not come naturally to you. Just remember that a “tidy first draft” will probably contain an occasional grammatical mistake, but presents all the key arguments that you put forward in a logical and fluid manner.