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The Ethics of Fracking

A Cost-benefit Analysis of Fracking

I always tell my ethics students that there are two sides to every issue from an ethical perspective and they need to identify both in making a cogent argument for or against a particular action or decision. Oftentimes the ethical issues are subtle; they don’t jump out at you. A good example is fracking.

Fracking, which is short for ‘hydraulic fracturing,’ refers to a method of recovering oil and gas from shale rock. Here is how it works. An oil company would drill down and then push under great pressure liquids sideways into oil and gas-rich shale rock. Millions of gallons of water, mixed with brine or chemicals, is injected into the shale and the resulting pressure fractures the rock layers which releases natural gas or oil. A proppant (propping agent), usually sand, is injected into the fractures to keep the fissures open and the oil or gas flowing.

According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the U.S. are “fracked” to boost production. Fracking usually occurs just after a new well is drilled, but many wells are fractured numerous times to get as much production out of a profitable site as possible.

Fracking is controversial because the chemicals, mixed with water, may find their way into aquifers which supply drinking water. Oil companies say that fracking is safe and poses no threat to drinking water. Right now, few groups are calling for an outright ban on fracking. However, shareholders want companies to issue full disclosure about individual fracking operations and the chemicals used during the process. Some companies counter that they already abide by environmental laws and regulations and that further disclosure is not necessary.

Shareholders of two large gas producers — ExxonMobil, and Chevron - recently voted not to require company officials to disclose more information about fracking. Exxon and Chevron had urged shareholders to vote against disclosure. Even so, 30 percent of ExxonMobil shareholders and 41 percent of Chevron shareholders voted for increased disclosure.  ExxonMobil spokeswoman Karen Matusic said that while the company supports the disclosure of chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluid, management has urged shareholders to vote against the activists’ resolution. “We believe state-level oversight of oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing, is the most effective approach for protecting human health and the environment, since it best accounts for local geology and other local factors,” she said.

The public has a right to be concerned about fracking. Last July thousands of gallons of fracking fluid spilled following an accident at a natural gas well in Pennsylvania. The well blew near the surface, spilling thousands of gallons of frack fluid over containment walls, through fields, personal property and farms, even where cattle continue to graze.

Two weeks ago the EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said. The EPA did emphasize that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area. The agency said the fracking that occurred in Pavillion differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics. Elsewhere, drilling is more remote and fracking occurs much deeper than the level of groundwater that would normally be used.

There are those who support fracking including landowners who have the most to lose if royalties stop flowing because of restrictions on fracking. Some landowners — such as a group with more than 10,000 acres combined in Oneida and Madison counties in New York State — have formed a formal partnership aiming to allow hydrofracking on their land, but they want control how it’s done.

From an ethical perspective we might look at the harms and benefits of fracking. In other words, do the potential dangers of fracking, including contamination of water supplies, outweigh the potential benefits of producing badly needed oil and gas resources at a time when our national security may be in jeopardy because of our continued reliance on unreliable sources of energy. Is U.S. energy independence more important than the potential for harm to those affected by fracking procedures? Do jobs and economic growth trump health and safety concerns?

There can be no doubt that additional studies are needed, more tests must be done, and the industry should be better regulated. (In 2005 the Bush administration chose to keep the industry virtually unregulated). In the meantime, why not release all available information to the public about safety risks and let the public decide? Full disclosure is a basic tenet of ethical behavior. From a “Rights Theory” perspective, those potentially affected by fracking operations have an ethical right to know about the potential harm to their drinking water and other environmental effects.

Energy decisions abound where safety versus economic benefits are pitted against each other. We have been debating the issue for years with respect to offshore oil drilling and now the debate focuses on whether we should extend the Keystone Pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, crossing the U.S. states of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas.

The bottom line on these issues, including practices such as fracking that has transformed the U.S. energy industry, is that energy independence comes at a cost. Increasingly, we as Americans, will be faced with tradeoff-decisions between sacrificing some health and safety concerns in the name of providing economic benefits, including jobs and increasing exports to countries like China that crave safer natural gas energy supplies for its growing economy. It’s a painful decision but one that must be made. We need a national conversation on the issue but, regrettably, the issue is largely on the back-burner this election cycle.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 19, 2011