Professor Andrew Watterson, public health researcher at Stirling University, argues that in a time of global climate crisis the facilitation and support of the fracking industry must stop.
To operate and develop, fracking companies rely on inhouse and external advisors and consultants, as well as planners in local and central government. The consultants include lawyers, engineers, scientists and environmental impact assessors.
After the COP26 summit, it is no longer possible for these advisors and facilitators to continue to publicly deny the catastrophic impacts that the fossil fuel industries, including fracking, have had and will continue to have on the world’s climate. Many will already have been aware of the decades of research and reports that revealed the industries’ role in global climate change (in addition to contributing to air pollution morbidity and mortality).
The industries acknowledged this themselves on camera in 2021. Ignorance of the human health and environmental effects of fossil fuels can no longer be used as defence for their work. Some advisors and consultants, however, may continue to support the industry through wilful ignorance when it is visible to the rest of the world.
Those continuing to advise and support fracking and its development are usually members of professional organisations. These professional bodies have codes of conduct or codes of ethics and practice that sometimes do address environmental matters in general terms and occasionally refer to the ‘public good’. Most, however, do not directly address the ethical dilemmas of working for, or with, industries that contribute to adverse climate impacts and climate change. They should now.
The defences frequently used by some of these professionals to support their position ranges from “it’s legal to do this work”, through to “it’s necessary”, and “someone has to do it”, to the last resort of “we were just obeying orders”. Such arguments no longer convince when we are faced with an urgent existential crisis, created by fossil fuels, that has already destroyed many lives, livelihoods, and environments.
Codes that do touch on the ethical dimension sometimes “suggest”, sometimes “advise”, sometimes “recommend” but occasionally “require” members to act sustainably and protect the public, the environment, and future generations.
In this article, I examine the ethical statements in a selection of national and international codes from some of the key professional groups.
The 2017 UK Code of Ethics produced jointly by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council indicates engineers should respect the environment and the public good: one of the code’s four underpinning fundamental principles.
Engineers “should protect and, where possible, improve the quality of built and natural environments” and “take due account of the limited availability of natural resources”. Engineers should also “maximise the public good and minimise both actual and potential adverse effects for their own and succeeding generations”.
These statements of ethical principles should make it impossible in 2022 for engineers to support fracking developments. However, the code makes clear it is neither prescriptive nor a regulation or standard. It should now be altered to do so and all other professional bodies could usefully include similar explicit reference to protecting succeeding generations and the ‘public good’.
The UK Institution of Chemical Engineers Code of Professional Conduct states members “must act in accordance with the principles of sustainability, prevent avoidable adverse impact on the environment and society, and protect, and where possible improve, the quality of built and natural environments” The code should be applied because, for this professional group, it is not optional. The principles of sustainability and avoidance of adverse social and environmental effects do include climate change and can be used to ensure chemical engineers in the future do not support new fracking developments.
In 2020, the American National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics stated engineers should “strive to serve the public interest” and should be “encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development in order to protect the environment for future generations”.
In 2015, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers approved a Code of Ethics requiring firstly that “members shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties”. Secondly, members should “formally advise their employers or clients (and consider further disclosure, if warranted) if they perceive that a consequence of their duties will adversely affect the present or future health or safety of their colleagues or the public”. Both US codes would seem to preclude support of fracking on climate change grounds.
Risks of bias have always existed when environmental consultants are contracted and paid to do environmental risk assessments for various parties and hence are not perceived as independent. These risks have also been long been debated and openly acknowledged by some practitioners in the field, who nevertheless believe there are effective mechanisms to ‘de-bias’ such assessments. With climate change, it is difficult to envisage any work by such consultants for new fracking developments that would not be viewed as clearly biased against the public interest, sustainability and global public health.
A range of guides, codes and principles may apply to these consultants who prepare environmental statements and impact assessments for the fracking industry, appear at public enquiries and planning appeals and, in some instances, also work full-time for fracking companies.
However, no independent regulatory body exists to effectively ensure the conduct and practice of all members of this professional group. Guidelines exist for some but it is unclear the extent to which they have been applied.
In contrast to the engineering professions, environmental consultants surprisingly often have lower ethical requirements to protect the public good.
The American National Association of Environmental Professionals produced a Code of Ethics ands Standards of Practice in 2018 that failed to mention sustainability as such or climate change, although members had a duty to interest themselves in ‘public welfare’.
The UK Society for the Environment has chartered environmentalists and registered environmental technicians among its members and has a very brief Code of Professional Conduct that is available on its 2022 web site. This makes a woolly and weak reference to requiring its members “to act in accordance with the best principles for the mitigation of environmental harm and the enhancement of environmental quality”. How exactly it could be applied is not clear.
The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) produced a much more useful Code of Professional Conduct in January 2019. Objectives for members include advancing “the understanding and the standards of practice of ecology and environmental management for the benefit of the natural environment and the public good”.
It is difficult to envisage how members’ knowledge and skills can be used to facilitate or support the fracking industry and its development, although the code does not specifically mention sustainability and climate change challenges.
Key values have, however, been identified by the World Health Organization for those who might carry out environmental health impact assessments, including “democracy, equity, sustainable development and ethical use of evidence”.
The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) over the years has produced and updated a professional Code of Conduct and Ethical Responsibilities that discusses values too. Its membership is voluntary but it covers many involved in environmental stewardship and sustainability projects.
The IAIA 2020 Code starts with a vision statement for a “just and sustainable world for people and the environment”. In 2022, such a vision cannot be consistent with enabling continued fossil fuel extraction. The Code then lists professional responsibilities, including the promotion of “sustainable and equitable outcomes from human actions that affect ecosystem and social functions” and giving “due regard to the rights and interests of future generations”.
Again, these responsibilities would seem to preclude working for, or with, the fossil fuel industry in the future. IAIA professional members are also expected to “not advance our private interests to the detriment of the public, our clients or employing institutions”. How this guidance will tally with future professional practice is unclear, particularly in circumstances where consultants’ reports are commissioned and financed by shale exploration companies.
No single code covers scientists working in industry or as consultants, although there are detailed codes of ethics for research scientists.
However, we know how some industries and companies can manipulate and skew science to protect their own interests.
The epidemiologist David Michaels said in his book Doubt is their product: how industry’s assault on science threatens your health (2020). He found that industries can deliberately create uncertainty to protect their products, including fossil fuels, and can skilfully use scientists, consultants, and researchers to present their case in quite complex and sophisticated ways.
Professional codes of conduct and ethics should preclude such abuses but to date they have not.
The 2015 UK Royal Society of Chemistry Professional Practice and Code of Conduct states members “should have a duty to minimise adverse effects on health, safety and the environment and to recommend the use of best health, safety and environmental practice and give appropriate advice”. There is a separate sub-section relating to serving the public interest that further states members “are expected to advance the welfare of society, particularly in the field of health, safety and the environment” and “use knowledge and experience for the protection and improvement of the environment”.
In this connect, it is difficult to identify how chemists can do this if they work to maintain and develop fossil fuel and fracking companies that have not shifted to just transition, sunsetting green chemistry initiatives to reduce global climate change impacts.
Geologists have various codes of ethics. The European Federation of Geologists identified “professional conscience and moral responsibility” as a key general principle. This would today be interpreted as covering the public good, public interest and the need to consider the impact of UOGE on climate change.
The Geological Society of the UK issued a Code of Conduct in 2020 covering all its Fellows and linked to regulations. This states Fellows “must take all reasonable precautions to avoid any act of commission or omission which might endanger life, adversely affect the health and safety of others, result in needless financial loss, or endanger or damage the natural and/or built environment”.
This is a requirement not guidance. The interpretation of “reasonable precautions” in the light of current evidence about fossil fuel extraction and their impacts on the global climate would seem to preclude geologists acting for fracking companies to develop new sites or extend existing ones in the UK. A further clause strengthens such an interpretation as it states Fellows “must consider the implications of their conduct in the context of the public good”.
These are not a homogenous group. They contain special interest groups in practice. such as environmental lawyers, as well as commercial lawyers. There are also academic lawyers and even a Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion group.
Lawyers do recognise the urgent need to debate what they should do when “the interests of their clients conflict with generally accepted public policy” on climate change. Some will be concerned with climate change law and issues of disclosure and client confidentiality. The ethical position, is of course, why should lawyers choose to work for industries that cause global climate change. The law profession defence would be that everyone has a right to representation regardless of what they do but no lawyer is surely compelled to accept such work and would the industry be able to function if lawyers did not represent them?
UK Solicitors’ professional codes of conduct do not touch directly on climate change or environmental issues. Nor do codes of conduct for UK barristers that anyway specifically require, as a core duty, the barrister to act in the best interest of each client.
In contrast the American Bar Association has called on all lawyers “to do what was in their power to reduce harm from climate change”. There is also a global view, at least on paper, that lawyers should work for the public good and so do have responsibilities to address climate change.
Planners may come from a range of professional backgrounds including law, engineering, environmental sciences, as well as planning. They may work independently for commercial interests or for environmental and community groups. They may also work for local authorities or for central government in the UK as planning inspectors.
The UK Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) produced a Code of Professional Conduct that became effective in 2016. It contained no specific references to how the code could or should apply to questions around the environment, climate change, sustainability, public interest or the public good. However, a further RTPI document, updated in 2017, offered advice for its members relating to ethics and professional standards. This advice recognised the tensions that existed for planners relating to acting in the public interest but “reconciling the competing interests of protecting public health, public amenity and the environment from harm having regard to the expectations of clients, employers, the local community and politicians as well as future generations”.
Surprisingly, there is no guidance here on prioritising or ordering those competing interests. To those outside the profession, it would seem client and political interests might legitimately over-ride the public interest. Again, there is no reference specifically in the document to climate. The RTPI has been doing good work on climate change issues and climate justice but this does not yet appear to be reflected in its ethical and conduct codes and advice for members who may be employed by or consult for the oil, gas and fracking industries.
The ethical position of local authority planners currently approving fracking developments looks untenable in the context of global climate change and is being challenged legally. They have on occasions, defended their decisions by salami slicing environmental impacts and stating the immediate and local effects of a specific developments will be minimal. The fact that these developments will contribute to the local, national, and international fossil fuel burden is lost. The argument is rather like a company that provides the metal plates for a bomb pretending it has no responsibility for the complete bomb. The climate ‘bomb’ should mean planners must be ethically responsible for any decisions they take that will increase the magnitude of the climate explosion that is going on.
Planning inspectors in England and Wales are covered by a Code of Conduct that was published in 2015 and updated in 2017. It makes no specific mention of the environment or sustainability. However, it indicates that those taking formal decisions in the course of their duties should apply the following principle:
“Decisions and recommendations must be made fairly and in the public interest. Decisions and recommendations should be made solely on merit, in terms of the public interest”.
In the context of the state of knowledge made public in the last few years, it looks impossible now to argue that approving fracking projects contributing to global climate change could in any way have been in the public interest.
The public health and environmental grounds for no longer supporting new fossil fuel developments, including fracking projects, is incontrovertible, based on the climate change and other evidence available.
The associated ethical grounds look equally strong for engineers, scientists, environmental consultants, planners and lawyers no longer supporting fracking developments.
The professional bodies representing them should, therefore, now ensure their codes of conduct, practice and ethics always include requirements to address climate change, sustainability and public good considerations for present and future generations.