On the complexity of ethical claims related to shale gas policy

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In a recent article in Local Environment, Matthew Cotton (2017) lays out a foundation for what an ethical approach to decision making on policy and planning in relation to shale gas development could look like. This is the most comprehensive attempt in peer-reviewed academic literature to characterise and explicate the requirements and constraints on ethically-justified policy in relation to this contentious extractive industry. Cotton (2017) uses Shrader-Frechette?s (2002) Principle of Prima Facie Political Equality (PPFPE) to critique policy and planning decisions in the UK in relation to shale gas development. The PPFPE focuses heavily on distributive and procedural justice and gives particular attention to the need for: equitable compensation for any harms sustained, access to information about potential harms, and ability to participate freely in decision making processes (Cotton 2017). Cotton?s (2017) articulation of an ethical framework by which to evaluate the fairness and appropriateness of policy on shale gas development is a major step in the right direction. Evensen (2015, 2016a) has asserted that an explicit account of the circumstances under which development would or would not be ethically justified is perhaps the biggest gap in the policy discourse and debates on this issue. Indeed, there have been numerous public claims about the ethicality of ?fracking? (shale gas development), but until Cotton?s (2017) foray into this area, the academic literature on the topic was quite limited (Evensen 2016a). A few prior articles had highlighted distributive justice issues related to fracking (Cotton 2013, Evensen 2015, Fry et al. 2015, Hardy and Kelsey 2015, Hays and de Melo-Martín 2014, Hotaling 2013, Malin 2014, Measham et al. 2016, Willow and Wylie 2014), procedural justice considerations (Cotton 2013, de Wit 2011, Evensen 2015, Finkel et al. 2013, Fry et al. 2015), and/or the role of precautionary thinking in ethical approaches to evaluating unconventional gas development (de Melo-Martín et al. 2015, Finkel and Hays 2013, Law et al. 2014). Cotton?s (2016) article draws together the range of distributive and procedural justice considerations; as such, it is one of the most important social scientific or humanistic articles written to date on this much-debated form of energy development. It offers a solid point of departure for ethical thought on shale gas policy; nevertheless, there is more work to be done. Following Cotton?s analysis, aspects of the PPFPE arise as problematic or require additional clarification, including: the role of compensation in distributive justice, the definition of a ?community?, the need for information provision, and the best way to ensure procedural justice. Two overarching issues that merit attention in relation to ethical thought on shale gas policy, but that were not addressed by Cotton (2016), are: (1) the role of shale gas development as just one means of energy extraction in a larger energy system ? development does not occur in a vacuum ? and (2) the role of virtue in determining ethicality of shale gas policies. I speak to these two issues and the four areas of Cotton?s argumentation requiring additional attention below.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1290-1297
Number of pages8
JournalLocal Environment
Issue number10
Early online date7 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


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