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Guest post: It’s time for consultants to take the ethical high road and not back fracking

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.

Engineers

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.

Environmental consultants

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.

Scientists

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”.

Lawyers

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

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.

Conclusion

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.


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42 replies »

  1. I personally don’t know why most companies would need consultants to deal with fracking given the in-house expertise available coupled with the complete lack of knowledge of the subject of those not directly involved with the industry. Even if consultants were required it seems a very difficult balance particular as helping provide a local supply of gas has many advantages including: (i) reducing emissions from long distance transport and poor working practices abroad; (ii) reduces need for child labour to help provide the critical metals needed for unreliables, and (iii) reduces the income to grossly unpleasant regimes such as Qatar and Russia.

    • “I personally don’t know why most companies would need consultants to deal with fracking given the in-house expertise available, coupled with the complete lack of knowledge of the subject of those not directly involved with the industry.”

      Ahh, the old “I don’t know” ploy. That is usually a result of not doing sufficient research, or ignoring any evidence that is contrary to the vague assumption. Perhaps it would be interesting to prove any of those claims with peer reviewed data, and links to substantiated and verified papers and reports, or just plain facts? Including the fact, as said by one of your colleagues on the previous page, that there is no fracking in the UK at all, due to the moratorium?

      It’s always amusing to see that old “complete lack of knowledge of the subject of those not directly involved with the industry.” That is clearly not true at all. It’s rather condescending and wildly speculative, in fact. Since as someone also said on the previous page “Perhaps conflation with those who use fossil fuel in UK that post on DoD, but that is everyone.” So in fact, by that sentence, everyone has complete knowledge of the subject.

      One does not have to be a qualified rigger, or geologist, or an offshore tax haven fossil fuel oil corporation or a rocket scientist, to know that an out of control polluting fossil fuel industry needs to be stopped, and the brakes applied? In favour of something, “less dangerous”?

      Judging from recent experience from the failures and earthquakes from the on shore fossil fuel industry, one might just as well say there is in-house expertise in pies in the sky?

      • rigger?
        Person who applies functional or artistic rope bondage (sometimes referred to as “human macramé”) to another person’s body for photographic, performance, artistic, educational, spiritual, or sexual purposes.

        The term is thought to originate from the nautical world and has strong associations with rope, knots, and suspension. Other forms of restraint may also be used; such as fabric, leather and steel.

        • Fancy a job then Paul?

          https://www.bestjobdescriptions.com/technical/oil-rigger-job-description

          What is an Oil Rigger?

          Oil Rigs (also called Oil Platform) are structures used to drill wells out and extract and process natural gas and oil and export products offshore. People who worked on oil rigs are called Oil Riggers. The word “ oil rig” means an equipment to drill including the platform the supports the drilling equipment. You cannot find them in a dictionary as “oil rigger” alone because they work as a team to complete the entire process. Everyone involve is an oil rigger and called as“ Crew”.

          Maybe you would prefer your own definition job? You know what they say. Variety is the spice of life! Whatever floats your nautical boat?

          • Perhaps the definition depends on whether you look at US websites or UK websites? Personally I have never come across a “rigger” (of either kind) in the oil and gas industry.

            Oil rigs are not oil platforms – the two are completely different – check it out. But don’t use a US website?

            Oil rigs drill wells, oil platforms produce oil – simples……stick to what you know.

            “One does not have to be a qualified rigger, or geologist, or an offshore tax haven fossil fuel oil corporation or a rocket scientist,……” – Perhaps it is better that one does..?

            Oil rig:

            https://i.insider.com/57a104d788e4a714088bc95c?width=2088

            Oil platform:

            • https://cdn.frack-off.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/web_T700_aerial.jpg?x22615
              On shore rig and riggers in Lancashire:

              Perhaps it does depend upon whether you look at US websites or UK websites, Paul. The distinction maybe somewhat vague as to the precise definition in the UK in the oil and gas industry, but nonetheless perfectly common in such circles elsewhere IME.

              People’s experience with any profession in the UK or abroad, is somewhat varied, and it is not uncommon to have not come across every single relevant, or irrelevant term. Slang tends to pervade where knowledge is scarce. But since the oil and gas industry began in the USA, with old Devil Bill at the helm so to speak, and in the UK the onshore oil and gas industry terminology seems to have crept into less precise local dialectical aphorisms than the original colloquialisms common in the USA fossil fuel industry.

              Not being aware of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Simply that it is not in an individual’s personal experience. In my professional and personal life I have met various riggers be that for crane and transport equipment, cable layers, a few oil and gas riggers abroad of Texas USA origin. Or just plain local nautical riggers in Poole Bay and elsewhere, some of whom were female, I’m pleased to say.

              On site abroad, the few that I did meet were admittedly somewhat Colonially curt and abrupt in their speech patterns. As is fairly typical of hard manual professional people (no females there). Whether they were into “other” nautical or otherwise forms of restraint; such as fabric, leather and steel. I did not enquire. Nor did I think it appropriate to do so. The conversation might have been even more abrupt? However, what they did in their personal life, was certainly their own affair?

              Perhaps your worldwide experience may have given you a…wider…perspective? Like I said, whatever floats your nautical boat?

              • Correct – well done – not a platform but a semi-submersible drilling rig – a MODU in fact. The drilling derrick is the clue.

              • https://glossary.oilfield.slb.com/Terms/d/drilling_crew.aspx

                “Personnel who operate the drilling rig. The crew typically consists of roustabouts, roughnecks, floor hands, lead tong operators, motormen, derrickmen, assistant drillers, and the driller. Because drilling rigs operate around the clock, there are at least two crews (twelve-hour work shifts, called tours, more common when operating offshore), or three crews (eight-hour tours, more common onshore). In addition, drilling contractors must be able to supply relief crews from time to time when crew members are unavailable. Though less common now than in years past, the drilling contractor may opt to hire only a driller, and the driller in turn is responsible for hiring everyone reporting to him or her.”

                https://oilandgasoverview.com/working-on-a-drilling-rig-positions-and-responsibilities/

                https://oilandgasoverview.com/?s=riggers

                “No posts to display”

                No mention of riggers?

                Perhaps “riggers” is an old term picked up by the antis and used today due to lack of industry experience; a bit like lumping all oil and gas upstream activity into “Fracking) – like Frack Off?

                • Interesting info Paul, well done. But still prevaricating and ignoring the subject of the heading. Maybe that was why one isolated word is causing so much indigestion?
                  Aww! Shame?
                  Unfortunately what you say, is clearly not the case though, is it.

                  As referenced by my link, which, possibly its that you had a brief lapse of concentration, and missed it. So I’ll repeat it here:

                  https://www.bestjobdescriptions.com/technical/oil-rigger-job-description

                  What is an Oil Rigger?

                  Oil Rigs (also called Oil Platform) are structures used to drill wells out and extract and process natural gas and oil and export products offshore. People who worked on oil rigs are called Oil Riggers. The word “ oil rig” means an equipment to drill including the platform the supports the drilling equipment. You cannot find them in a dictionary as “oil rigger” alone because they work as a team to complete the entire process. Everyone involved is an oil rigger and called as“ Crew”.

                  Perhaps now that brief sojourn into bizarrely isolated terminological inexactitude, you could actually return to the subject of why the fossil fuel representatives don’t want to be bound by professional codes of practice regarding ethical and moral restrictions on the fossil fuel industry? Is that because ethics and morals in the fossil fuel profession is somehow limiting of profit and greed?

                  Or are you just wasting time writing endless prevarication about one single word on a rainy Saturday morning? Now that is quite a familiar waste of time and space tactic with your esteemed buddy back up colleague, isn’t it?

                  In which case.

                  Have A Nice Day.

      • Judging from recent experience from the failures of power cables, one might just as well say that there is in-house expertise in pies in the sky?

        Judging from recent experience from the failures of EVs, one might just as well say that there is in-house expertise in pies in the sky?

        Or, nuclear power?

        Or, interconnectors?

        However, thankfully there are many areas where the on shore fossil fuel industry is functioning very efficiently, and in no way out of control.

        • I dont recall any of those being a problem. Pies in the sky tend to be brief during transit from one point to another? As Bill Gates discovered?

          [video src="https://bitstorm.org/gates/gates.mp4" /]

          As to the onshore fossil fuel industry, perhaps efficiency is relative to one’s perspective? Certainly I see no efficiency at Cold Harbour Lane? Or indeed several others that have neither riggers nor rigs. Perhaps due to a sort of failure to perform, or a moratorium “rigger mortise”, you might say?

  2. PhilC-maybe you do not recall, but then perhaps if you researched reality you would?

    I will not do the job for you but suggest you start with some research into cause of forest fires in USA.

    Then, perhaps move on to Chernobyl?

    Failures on interconnectors? Take your pick, there are numerous UK examples.

    Seems there are some engineers, who probably belong to professional bodies, who need to up their game! Perhaps too worried about consultancy income? I wonder-will the engineers responsible be removed from their professional bodies? Probably be “removed” reference Chernobyl, but maybe not the path to tread.

    • As far as your post can be even remotely interpreted from its vague and unspecified meanderings. I naturally assumed it referred to some personal experience with power cables? Or pies in the sky? Or failures of EVs? Or more pies in the sky? Or nuclear power? Or interconnectors?

      Perhaps it would be better, if you wish to communicate anything at all, in the real world. That, rather than some vague allusion to nothing much at all. Perhaps it would be preferable to write in precise written, accurate language. Names, places, times, that sort of thing. Preferably with a few nouns, pronouns and adjectives.

      What written communication actually requires in order to say something that is even remotely discernable, is that it requires a specific, accurate description. What is contributed there, however, is so vaguely waved at that it doesn’t actually refer to anything at all? Just a jumble of words.

      No, sorry old thing, vague inexact illusions don’t even remotely impress engineers and professional in any professional activities. Regardless of particular profession or application. Precise language is also a requirement in everyday speech. Something else which appears to be lacking in that post. Otherwise, no-one knows what the offending poster is even talking about? Let alone can be bothered to try.

      It seems that there are those who don’t belong to any professional institutes or adhere to any professional ethical and moral codes of practice. Who decry and claim those ethical and moral codes of professional practice to be merely “academic” and refuse to be bound by them even if they did belong.

      The English written language seems to have escaped that post in any way up or down or sideways it is read.

      If the poster can’t, or won’t write clearly and precisely, using the academic English language. But would rather expect anyone else to bother to dredge through the incoherent non-specific text, hoping to find anything at all, that actually refers to any event or situation in the real world?

      Then I’m afraid, as a means of communication, that is somewhat fundamentally flawed and inefficient….. Or perhaps, to coin a phrase, Pie In The Sky?

      Have a nice weekend.

      Always a pleasure.

      • I give credit to the readers they have some level of knowledge, PhilC. If they don’t, they can easily search from the clues I provided. If they have problems with both, they may have a problem beyond my help. Have many not heard of Chernobyl? Could those who have not, just type one word on a search engine? Even easier than typing [edited by moderator] three “US Tesla recalls” or four like “forest fires in California”.

        I don’t believe in treating people as intelligent beings is flawed, even if some have issues with common sense. I would not wish to suggest that readers of DoD are not able or willing to know about the subject, and have to be spoon fed. I have had to do so occasionally, but Paul is rather set against that.

        And the silliness around claiming some superiority in the English language each time when in difficulty, is now an overused and discredited technique on this site, and in no way changes the reality. (That typing equivalent of a facial “tick”-Enjoy, Always a pleasure- is hardly a very convincing use of English to attempt to disguise discomfort, by the way. The pattern is now too clear over a very long period. A flaw in communication and arithmetic to develop such a pattern.)

        But, thanks for the nice weekend bit. Reciprocated.

  3. Correct – well done – not a platform but a semi-submersible drilling rig – a MODU in fact. The drilling derrick is the clue.

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