The recent start-up of fracking tests in Lancashire by Cuadrilla has resurfaced many of the concerns regarding fracking operations in the UK. Fracking involves drilling into shale rock reserves and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to extract oil and gas. Many argue that fracking would strengthen the economy and provide security for the UK’s energy supply, but the industry is controversial for its potentially adverse environmental effects and exploitation of local communities. This article analyses arguments both for and against the legalisation of fracking in the UK and is underpinned by key ethical theories.
The Government Should Legislate the Inclusion of Fracking in the UK’s Energy Supply.
In 2015, 90% of the UK’s energy imports were oil and gas, and energy imports accounted for almost 50% of the UK’s energy supply . Some of the countries in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), from whom we import oil and gas, reportedly have morally dubious values and ethics. For example, Russia and Saudi Arabia who are reported by the Human Rights Watch to be guilty of numerous human rights violations  . Duty ethics argues that a person should perform an action because it is the right thing to do and should not perform actions which are the wrong thing to do. It can be argued that because of the alleged human rights abuse in these countries, it would be wrong to continue importing their oil and the right thing to do would be to stop importing their oil by allowing fracking in the UK to fulfil the demand. In addition, virtue ethics states an action is only right if a virtuous person would carry out said action when in that position. A virtuous person would not import oil from countries with track records of human rights abuses, therefore, importing from OPEC can be deemed unethical and allowing fracking is a more ethical alternative to provide the UK’s oil supply.
There is a high potential for job creation from fracking in the UK; backed up by data from the US where fracking created 750,000 jobs between 2005 and 2012 . These jobs will be particularly suited to replace jobs in the UK oil and gas industry, where 60,000 jobs were lost in 2016 alone . Decreasing unemployment by allowing the creation of new jobs is inarguably the right thing for the UK government to do; for this reason, duty ethics supports allowing fracking in the UK in terms of its job creation potential. In addition to this, virtue ethics would support the creation of new jobs as a morally virtuous person would want to decrease unemployment and allow people to improve their quality of life, and would therefore make the decision to allow fracking.
Current UK legislation requires that fracking companies give back 1% of their profits to local communities , however, Ineos have suggested they will give 6% of their profits , meaning the government could legislate a higher amount than the 1%. Care ethics argues that individuals who will be impacted by the consequences of a decision should be considered by the people making the decision. The government legislating for this reinvestment in the communities in which fracking is taking place would show an ethical consideration for the consequences on the individuals living within the local community and an attempt to foster a caring relationship between the company and government, and the local community.
The Government Should Legislate Against the Inclusion of Fracking in the UK’s Energy Supply.
Despite varying claims, insufficient studies into fracking operations mean the environmental impacts are still largely unknown . Leading to duty ethics, is it morally right to allow fracking for short term benefits despite its unknown total impact?
High water consumption is becoming of increasing concern as it threatens availability of water resources. Between 2011 and 2016, water consumption in US fracking operations has increased by 770% on average . Additionally, water pollution can occur from fracking fluids leaking into the water supply. This occurred in the early on in the US through malpractice, however the chance of this happening now is very low . Fracking can also lead to ground pollution, with the largest spill recorded being 100,000 litres . Not only are the spillages a safety concern; blowouts, explosions and fires lead to 91 fatalities reported between 2003-2008 .
Tight UK regulations ensure fracking operations cease for 18 hours after any earthquake above 0.5 on the Richter Scale, as opposed to a rating of 4 in the US  . This minimises significant earthquake risk, but such tight restrictions threaten the industry altogether .
As part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the government has an ethical duty to minimise climate change impact by reducing carbon emissions, relating to Kantian Theory of moral right. The UK’s move from coal to gas has reduced CO2 emissions; but fracking releases large quantities of methane, which has a significant impact on our carbon footprint . Figure 1 shows the 20 year projected impact, and predicts much higher methane emissions from fracking compared to conventional gas, due to various process losses .
Another ethical standpoint is that of utilitarianism. From this view the government should support whichever decision brings the greatest pleasure to the largest number of people. The latest public opinion polls on whether fracking should be carried out in the UK show that 18% support it, 32% oppose, and 47% are impartial . Based on this data, it can be argued that preventing fracking development would provide more pleasure to the UK population than allowing it, at least in the short term. Furthermore, the majority of shale reserves have been found in highly populated areas, and there is significantly more resistance in local communities, who arguably deserve more of a say.
Land ownership rights are also an important ethical consideration. Under the UK Petroleum Act 1998, all shale deposits belong to the Crown, unlike the landowner in the US . Additionally, the Infrastructure Act 2015 allows oil and gas drilling below 300m without the landowner’s consent . This leaves landowners particularly vulnerable, as they have little say over whether drilling can occur under their property and little control over their financial compensation or legal support. This links closely with Care Ethics, in which the government is responsible for the well-being of its dependant citizens. Concerns have been raised over how liable landowners will be for adverse environmental impacts once drilling operations have stopped, as well as the financial compensation they will receive.