The Ethics of Fracking

By Bernhard Debatin

As controversial as it is, fracking is not often discussed in terms of its ethics. The 37 minute-long video The Ethics of Fracking, by the Scott Cannon and the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, provides a good discussion of the various ethical issues of fracking. It shows that fracking leads to a number of ethical problems and serious side-effects, ranging from the contamination of drinking water, to air and noise pollution, to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and to disrupting communities and creating long-term risks and costs for our society.

Watching this video is a must for anybody interested in and concerned about fracking. My following remarks do not summarize the video’s content, they rather highlight and comment on some of the issues I found particularly important.

First, the video makes a strong argument for having general national standards, rather than a patchwork of uneven state-level regulations. Without national standards we have a “race to the bottom,” where individual states try to attract the industry by underbidding other states’ rules and regulations. In our area, we have seen this specifically with injection wells for toxic wastewater from fracking. Due to low fees and lax regulations, Ohio has become a major importer of wastewater from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. More than half of the frackwater injected into Ohio storage wells comes from out of state.

The funny thing is, nation-wide regulations already exist for all industries but the oil and gas industry. Every industry except the oil and gas industry has to comply with the clean water act, the clean air act, the safe drinking water act, the resource conservation and recovery act, and many more federal regulations that protect the environment. This special treatment for the energy industry is known as the Halliburton Loophole.

In the video, congressman Matt Cartwright from Pennsylvania urges: “All of those exemptions have to be repealed. Of all of the industries that can afford to treat the environment with kindness, oil and gas is right up there. They’ve got lots of money, they can do it the right way… they can make sure that they do their extractions in a safe and environmentally friendly way.”

Second, the video also addresses the fact that fracking deals with a high level of unkowns, a phenomenon that has been debated in philosophy and sociology for years (see, for instance, Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty, by Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott and Michael Gibbons; Polity Press 2001). Philosophers of technology and an ethicists therefore press for the application of the precautionary principle as long as a new technology is full of unknowns. A moratorium on fracking would be the obvious consequence.

Says ethicist Bernhard Prusak (King’s College, PA) in the video: “In cases where we know that we don’t really know, that we are aware that there are moral risks here, it falls on the actors, the persons who want to proceed with fracking … to do a lot of legwork to make it really clear that matters are safe. And misleading statements, advertising campaigns that obfuscate the fact that we don’t really know, those are morally objectionable.” But it is no secret that the oil and gas industry spends millions of dollars on confusing the public with deceptive ad campaigns and on keeping lawmakers on their side.

Finally, The Ethics of Fracking advocates an honest cost-benefit analysis that comprises all costs and does not simply assume that the benefits of fracking quasi-automatically cancel out and surpass its costs. However, while it correctly reveals that many costs never show up in the accounting books and demands that these costs should be included in the cost-benefit assessment, the video falls short of making the connection to the general mechanism of externalizing costs that lies behind all this. Cost externalization “occurs anytime a company makes money while damaging the environment or another element of the public interest (e.g., human rights, public health and safety, the dignity of employees or the welfare of our communities).” [Robert Hinkley]

The oil and gas industry relies heavily on externalizing costs, i.e. shifting the burden on others, such as communities, the tax payer, society at large, the environment, and future generations. In his book The Corporation (Free Press 2004), Joel Bakan shows that corporations are “externalizing machines” that constantly try to reduce their expenses by transferring them to third parties.

However, as long as externalization is not only tolerated but encouraged in the name of the “free market,” real change is unlikely to happen. Thus, we do not only need to change the law and improve democracy, as the video rightly demands, we also need to change the economic framework of an uncontrolled capitalist market system.


One response to “The Ethics of Fracking

  1. I honestly believe that the corporations and fracking will poison our aquifers. When we and our children are dying from the poisoned water, the corporations will ride in on their white horses and build water purification plants. We will be forced to buy the very water they poisoned. Of course the filtered water will be too expensive to water a garden and we will also be forced into buying the products created by corporate monoculture and their GMOs. If you want to escape this horrible future, reject fracking now!

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