The Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing and the Responsibilities of Engineers
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One third of U.S. natural gas is extracted by injecting fluid at high pressure into shale formations, a process associated with a number of possible hazards and risks that have become the subject of intense public controversy. We develop a three-part schema to make sense of risks of hydraulic fracturing and the responsibilities of engineers: the lab, the field, and the forum. In the lab, researchers seek to answer basic questions about, for example, the behavior of shale under particular conditions; there uncertainty seems to arise at every turn. In the field, engineers and others work to implement technological processes, such as hydraulic fracturing and the subsequent extraction of oil and gas; hazards may arise as natural and social systems respond in sometimes surprising ways. In the forum, the public and their representatives deliberate about risk and acceptable risk, questions that are framed in ethical as well as technical terms. The difficulty of characterizing – and in living up to – the responsibilities of engineers lie in part in the apparent distance between the lab and the forum. We examine in turn uncertainties in the lab, hazards in the field, and deliberation in the forum, leading to the conclusion that scientists and engineers can and should help to inform public deliberation but that their research cannot, on its own, resolve all controversies. Scientists and engineers who seek to inform deliberation should be mindful of the scope and limits of their authority, clear and modest in communicating research findings to the public, and careful to avoid even apparent conflicts of interest wherever possible. We close by drawing from the lab-field-forum schema to suggest a direction for pedagogical innovations aimed at the formation of responsible engineers in the context of college-level degree programs.
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