3.1. Situating the Science on Air Pollution and Shale Exploration
There is frequently a major mismatch between what scientific research flags up and how quickly regulators, industry and their consultants catch up with, cite and use that science. At what point (if at all) do governments factor new research into legislation and policies, and to what extent do planners and regulators take the latest research-based evidence into account?
The skewing of research and the manipulation of scientific findings both generally and within the public health fields by industry have been well documented over many decades [3
]. Some of the efforts to distort how scientific evidence is weighed on issues where corporate interests and the wider public interest collide are conducted under the banner of ‘sound science’ [50
]. Another dimension to the disputation of scientific evidence has been the corporate assault on the precautionary principle, and in the European context, recent efforts to promote the innovation principle as core to policy and regulatory decision making. The analysis of the emergence and strategies of the climate denial movement point to the contestation of science as a key aspect of their political influence [47
]. Attacks on individual scientists also appear to be orchestrated. This fits into a wider pattern of organised strategic communication, where corporations are active in projecting and protecting their interests in policy circles, expert networks, public fora and in judicial setting like public hearings and the courts [54
]. Our Gramscian approach is sensitive to how ‘common sense’ about issues of science and public health are forged over time and across a variety of settings and arenas. The evidence also suggests that corporations enjoy a structural advantage in having the resources to invest and engage in a definitional war of position to secure its interests. In relation to shale exploration, these resources include lobbying and public affairs expertise, both in-house and hired consultants. It also includes those who work on behalf of corporations in regulatory affairs and in managing planning applications, spanning the environmental, health and safety, as well as managing local community relations through public relations activities—all of which is geared towards securing consent for shale developments.
These studies are equally relevant to the shale oil and gas industry and sometimes relate to companies that operate or invest in shale exploration [56
]. In recent years, there has been growing concern about how the fossil fuel industry can influence the framing and processing of energy development at a range of levels: central and local government and including legal and planning mechanisms. Our focus here is not on the spread of misinformation or disinformation on scientific issues. The concern is to explore how presumably scientifically literate and informed experts and regulators are party to regulatory and policy outcomes that apparently contradict or ignore scientific consensus. There is some research which points to the role of governments (in Australia and Canada) in denying science, especially in relation to climate issues, referred to as ‘ignorance building’ [59
]. Other research considers ‘ignorance as a necessary social achievement rather than as a simple background failure to acquire, store and retrieve knowledge’ ([60
], p. 107), suggesting that ignorance may be necessary for organisations, especially those dealing with ‘wicked problems’ associated with environment and public health. Industry reappears in much of the literature on contesting science [61
“Protecting the public’s health, preventing disease, and promoting well-being must be the unambiguous goals of research in occupational and environmental health” ([62
], p. 1). The hazards of air pollution linked to unconventional oil and gas development have been well documented, sometimes along with likely risks to public health of very low-level exposures [63
]. Potential risks from shale in Europe have been identified [68
]. Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production facilities have been flagged specifically in a community context [69
]. Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development has been noted with periodic high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air [70
]. Other studies have looked at particular air pollutants from shale oil and gas facilities and winter haze around shale sites [71
]. One study using geographic information assessments of maternal ambient health hazards and adverse birth outcomes in Canada included oil and gas well pads. [73
US and UK reviews on public health in several publications beyond central government agencies in Europe and US have also looked at air pollution and shale developments [64
]. Leading environmental and medical experts have flagged shale exploration as a major threat to public health including air pollution linked to climate change [77
]. UK medical colleges have further called for disinvestment in fossil fuels which include shale exploration because of the public health damage they do [11
This research itself may not raise ethical or environmental justice concerns directly about shale, but the findings do and often for vulnerable groups and those living in already polluted communities or with pre-existing health problems. Effects range from the impacts of extracting materials to be used in fracking such as sand, the transport of materials and equipment to build, maintain and run sites as well as extract oil and gas, dispose of waste products and decommission wells and processing centres [78
Associations between unconventional natural gas development in Marcellus shale and asthma exacerbation have been found [80
]. The link between childhood hematologic cancer, air pollution and residential proximity to oil and gas development has been reported [82
Associations between PM2.5 exposure and neurological disorders have been found in systematic reviews and meta-analyses [83
]. Particular pollutants such as endocrine disruptors and other chemicals used and liberated in shale oil and gas present a range of air borne and water contamination hazards with risks that have not yet been fully quantified [86
]. In such settings, the application of the precautionary principle would seem wise [87
] and would help reflect ethical and environmental justice concerns in policy development.
Investigations of the effect of shale and birth outcomes in the USA were published in 2015 and later studies picked up concerns about very low-level effects on infant health [74
Short-term exposure to air pollution and stroke have been linked in systematic reviews and meta-analyses [93
]. In systematic reviews and meta-analyses, long-term exposure to PM2.5 was found to be an important risk factor for stroke [95
The air quality pollutants identified by UK advisors during shale gas operations along with their sources are listed in Table 3
This picture is replicated in other assessments of some atmospheric pollutants in the shale exploration lifecycle [97
There are still significant gaps: and in the US, they may be due to agencies at local and national levels pushing for cost and regulatory reasons against funding certain projects that address this deficit. For example, “direct measurements of key air pollutant emissions from unconventional oil and gas are limited, especially during drilling and completion (hydraulic fracturing and flowback) of new wells. Knowledge of emission rates of air toxics and other air pollutants from these activities is urgently needed to inform public policy” ([98
], p. 720). In an evidence-led regulatory system, these gaps could be expected to trigger more precautionary policies [99
]. Although there are very few detailed lifecycle assessments of fracking [101
], there is enough information available to enable air pollution to be identified if not quantified in detail across the cycle.
In assessing air pollution in fracking, deliberation tends to focus narrowly on planning and other laws relating to industry proposals for development of shale oil and gas. Wider and cumulative public health or environmental justice concerns are de facto ignored despite increasing recognition of the global impact of climate change and the role of the fossil fuel industry in contributing to that problem.
3.2. Ethics and Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) of Shale Exploration
Ethical issues and questions of equity are important factors in HIA [102
]. However, the HIA process, which often requires access to funding and expertise, can further exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. Shale oil and gas developments in areas of rural and industrial deprivation can reinforce pre-existing inequalities, where communities often experience relatively poor economic performance and health outcomes and may lack economic and cultural capital to contest planning applications. No independent regulatory body exists to assure the quality and equity of HIAs or control the conduct and practice of those carrying out HIAs within environmental statements or environmental impact statements. Guidelines have been drafted to address some of the identified deficits that have emerged but it is unclear the extent to which they have been applied. Key values that would underpin public health in HAI would centre on “democracy, equity, sustainable development and ethical use of evidence.” [103
]. The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) promotes a “guiding principle” for HIA, namely a “comprehensive approach to health” “HIA is most fundamentally concerned with the principles ‘do good and do not harm’. HIA provides a well-established approach to identifying both positive and negative impacts that may arise from a proposal” [42
]. Again, there do not appear to be any public assessments of how environmental consultants in general and those working for the shale gas industry in particular apply these principles or have been audited to check their application.
Shale oil and gas environmental impact statements, which include HIAs seldom, if ever, fully address sustainable development or environmental justice concerns. As such, they fail to reflect best practice. In addition, some shale exploration HIAs appear to rely on sweeping generalizations about risk and repeatedly cite studies which appear to downplay or neglect significant public health risks [104
]. The IAIA endorses an integrated and participatory form of impact assessment. These are characterised by professional autonomy and transparency and adopt a broader view of social and health impacts. Yet many shale oil and gas HIAs appear to disregard community well-being and lack meaningful forms of participation. Often community consultation is tokenistic and does not address pre-existing information and power asymmetries skewed in favour of developers. This form of practice contravenes the IAIA acknowledged “duty of care to both present and future generations”. Yet shale oil and gas impact assessments fail to consider the global or local public health consequences of using shale energy [105
The 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 tallies with professional practice is unclear, particularly in circumstances where consultants’ reports are commissioned and financed by shale exploration companies [105
]. The problems may be explicit or implicit in assessing, for example, the threats posed by air pollution in shale exploration planning proposals. This can be reflected in the language used by environmental consultancies in their reports: the terms selected and the standards presented may not accurately reflect either the importance of the public health agenda or the existing scientific evidence. Key threats to public health can be downplayed or ignored, including the failure to mention carcinogens, neurotoxins, immunotoxins or reproductive health hazards. The failure to reference the latest research findings is as commonplace as repeated references to narrowly drawn terms of reference or governmental standards which may not reflect the better public health standards available and certainly do not reflect the precautionary principle or the impact that socio-economic disadvantages have on vulnerable populations exposed to air pollution.
3.3. Inequalities and Environmental Justice in Shale Exploration
The geography of inequality linked to air pollution from conventional and unconventional gas extraction is also minimised or ignored by industry when presenting economic arguments for the expansion or continuation of oil and gas production [44
]. Important analyses of shale oil and gas governance in the US linked to specific areas have been conducted and have much to offer in conceptualising the roles and relationships of different parties but the UK position is somewhat different. In the UK, there has been nothing like the equivalent research of ‘dumping down in Dixie’ or on first nations’ land, where the ethnicity of a local population affected by oil and gas air pollution was a key factor. In the UK, air pollution linked to shale exploration has been relatively under-researched but in the USA there is an evidence-base [109
]. In the UK, inequality issues are not usually explicitly identified in papers addressing environmental justice and fracking [111
] and may need wider parameters to include such elements as sustainability [112
]. Public Health England, when estimating local mortality burdens due to air pollution, did not mention oil or gas specifically as contributors to those figures. Shale oil and gas commercial development at scale was not underway in the country at that time [38
The geographies associated with inequality and air pollution suggest the impact on vulnerable populations, including workers, are simply missing from almost all industry and industrial consultants’ commentaries. Researchers have shown how industry
“Rebrands its flexible geographies—its variable spatial and temporal configuration of work, equipment, and bodies—as uncertain such that the industry, and its occupational exposures, are ungovernable. The evidentiary process of rulemaking has the effect of imbuing industry with ‘health’ such that human health risks are considered alongside industry’s capacities. Thus, the hearings provide a venue for industry to contest new regulations using discourses of uncertainty, not just regarding the science that justifies lower limits, but also the geographies on which the industry relies”.
The problems planners face with the fragmentation of projects and decision making is significant with regard to shale exploration [115
]. It ensures the total picture of all shale oil and gas impacts is never fully considered and hence national and global burdens of air pollution that will affect small communities are not properly considered [116
]. Comparisons by planners and planning appeals bodies of background air pollution levels in districts have also failed to fully consider fine particle pollution reported in the research.
Detailed work on socio-economic deprivation and impacts on public health linked to air pollution has been carried out in the US [117
]. This has been relatively neglected in England. There is little research on the health effects of ultrafine particles [118
]. In Scotland, there has been some effort by government to build these concerns into official deliberations on shale exploration, which reflect a more precautionary approach than that adopted by the UK government [107
]. It is still an open question as to whether the more precautionary approach in Scotland is the product of a policy process receptive to the latest research or whether is reflects a pre-existing political preference of the Scottish government. Whatever the driver, our point is that this report illustrates how evidence, data, scientific consensus and uncertainty can be organised in and out of policy documents. Industry and industry-funded assessments of shale exploration air pollution impacts rarely address inequality or environmental justice concerns. In contrast, US researchers are beginning to factor in poverty and geography as well as many other influences relating to air pollution that would affect public health through cumulative environmental assessments affecting populations [114
Similarly, other researchers are beginning to consider multiple environmental exposure risks and detailed lifecycle assessments from pre-conception to old age of individuals including their environment [122
]. This is the exposome approach developed in 2005 but still neglected in the UK. It is another example of a lagging approach in England that has some validity to assessing possible impacts of air pollution along with a range of other factors [123
In 2019, the UK government produced its Clean Air Strategy policy document under the umbrella of the Environment, Health, Business and Treasury ministries [126
]. The strategy is unequivocal and, although not specifically written to address inequalities in health policy, it would benefit the most economically disadvantaged populations:
“Air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the UK. It shortens lives and contributes to chronic illness. Health can be affected both by short-term, high-pollution episodes and by long-term exposure to lower levels of pollution”.
“We will progressively cut public exposure to particulate matter pollution as suggested by the World Health Organization. We will set a new, ambitious, long-term target to reduce people’s exposure to PM2.5 and will publish evidence early in 2019 to examine what action would be needed to meet the WHO annual mean guideline limit of 10 μg/m3. By implementing the policies in this strategy, we will reduce PM2.5 concentrations across the UK, so that the number of people living in locations above the WHO guideline level of 10 μg/m3 is reduced by 50% by 2025”.
“We will equip health professionals to play a stronger role by working with the Medical Royal Colleges and the General Medical Council to embed air quality into the health professions’ education and training. We will work with local authorities and directors of public health to equip and enable them to lead and inform local decision-making to improve air quality more effectively”.
If this policy is adopted in England, it would help to address some of the environmental justice and ethical shortcomings created by proposed shale developments and climate change and air pollution impacts. Elsewhere in the world, fracking has been linked to human rights and clearly necessitates human rights impact assessments that would address environmental injustices [127
]. In early 2020, it is still very unclear what progress will be made in reaching the WHO PM2.5 targets. The UK government’s own assessment of actions since January 2019 made in July 2019 failed to mention fossil fuels generally or shale gas in particular and shale exploration activities continued [9
]. The UK in 2019 did meet the EU legislative limit value of 25 μg/m3
but had not met a second stage limit of 20 μg/m3
set for 2020. The UK limit itself is twice as high as the WHO guideline from 2008 and it did not meet the legal limits for NO2
3.4. Environmental Justice
Since the 1990s, those advocating environmental justice have made the connection between pollution, ethics and disadvantage. Fossil fuels and embodied energy injustices in coal have attracted attention [128
]. The environmental justice advocates’ analysis remains valid in 2019 [129
]. This moves the debate away from ‘simple’ or narrow risk assessments and locates it squarely in a wider ethical frame that is often entirely missed, even now, by UK policy makers and environmental consultants.
“The question of environmental justice is not anchored in a debate about whether or not decision makers should tinker with risk assessment and risk management. The environmental justice framework rests on developing tools and strategies to eliminate unfair, unjust, and inequitable conditions and decisions” ([131
], p. 1).
The framework also attempts to examine the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce differential exposure and unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, when, why, and how much” ([40
], p. 559). In this context, work on the spatial analysis of populations and environments at risk from shale developments is especially important and plays directly into environmental justice concerns [112
]. Proximity to natural gas wells in terms of exposures including air pollution may be associated in the US with prevalence of various health symptoms including respiratory illnesses in residents living nearby [136
The health benefits of air pollution reduction are considerable. They are greatest in the most polluted areas but researchers note that they occur below international standards and play directly into reducing climate change impacts.
“Air pollution is a grave risk to human health that affects nearly everyone in the world and nearly every organ in the body. Fortunately, it is largely a preventable risk. Reducing pollution at its source can have a rapid and substantial impact on health. Within a few weeks, respiratory and irritation symptoms, such as shortness of breath, cough, phlegm, and sore throat, disappear; school absenteeism, clinic visits, hospitalizations, premature births, cardiovascular illness and death, and all-cause mortality decrease significantly” ([137
], p. 1478).
So, cutting or preventing shale exploration is also an ethical step and will improve public health across the board along with reducing environmental injustices. The link between, for example, short-term exposure to fine particulate matter (particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5)) and hospital admissions has been widely reported. Researchers conclude “new causes and previously identified causes of hospital admission associated with short term exposure to PM2.5 were found. These associations remained even at a daily PM2.5 concentration below the WHO 24-h guideline. Substantial economic costs were linked to a small increase in short term PM2.5” ([137
], p. 1).
US and UK studies of fracking project proposals have identified major problems with planning and social licences to develop fracking and suggest power structures shape outcomes in favour of shale oil and gas schemes. There is little evidence that participation in enquiries on fracking by community members has direct impacts on decision making [105
]. The lack of transparency, access to planning processes and decision making in UK energy developments such as shale exploration has also been well documented in recent years. Much of the focus recently has been on procedural injustice issues with less emphasis on problems of public health or ‘distributive’ injustice that had been covered in earlier years [41
]. While it is true that without procedural justice in some settings, there will not be distributive justice, it is possible, as we have seen in parts of the US, France and Scotland, for government policy to prevent shale exploration at a national level, thereby ensuring no air pollution and no associated environmental injustice [107
3.5. The Ethical Dimensions
The ethics of shale exploration and possible air pollution and climate change impacts have been generally neglected, with a few notable exceptions. In 2014, US researchers described the emphasis there on the cost–benefit analysis of shale, which of course includes climate change and public health. From an ethical perspective, they argued that policy makers had “a prima facie duty to minimize false negatives based on three considerations: (1) protection from serious harm generally takes precedence over the enhancement of welfare; (2) minimizing false negatives in this case is more respectful to people’s autonomy; and (3) alternative solutions exist that may provide many of the same benefits while minimizing many of the harms” ([32
], p. 1114).
The oil and gas industry’s knowledge of the impacts of its products on the environment dates back almost a century, and its knowledge of the impacts of fossil fuels on the wider climate has been known since at least the 1980s. Grasso has identified five key ‘morally relevant’ facts about the industry, including air pollution and shale, in the context of addressing broader climate ethics.
“Oil and gas companies have known for decades that their activities caused climate change (Fact A—Awareness); they did not take steps to modify their fossil-fuel centred behaviour (Fact B—Behaviour), even though less carbon-intensive alternatives were possible (Fact C—Capacity). Additionally, oil and gas companies funded and orchestrated climate change denial campaigns, through which they successfully opposed political action against climate change (Fact D—Denial), while at the same time amassing and distributing fabulous wealth (Fact E—Enrichment) to the privileged few” [138
As Table 4
below shows, in the UK, there was often little consideration of ethical, environmental justice or equality issues when examining the possibilities of shale exploration and potential impacts on communities and the climate [139
]. In contrast, there was much discussion of planning technicalities. This is somewhat surprising because, for example, Public Health England’s role specifically included addressing health inequalities. By contrast, Health Protection Scotland [64
] did address a number of these issues in a report (with a similar brief to that produced by PHE) and looked in detail at health inequalities. The Smith reports [142
], although given much prominence in the media and much weight by industry and the UK government, were funded by industry and produced superficial analyses in support of the shale industry while largely neglecting public health research.
The two House of Commons research briefings for MPs prepared in 2015 and 2018 flagged planning issues but ignored environmental justice, inequalities and ethical dimensions of shale exploration. These reports also made little or no mention of air pollution and shale beyond brief reference to traffic impacts but they did flag climate issues. The UK government position prior to the 2019 election reflected in its guidance was that fracking in the UK had measures in place to ensure on-site safety, prevent environmental contamination, mitigate seismic activity and minimise greenhouse gas emissions [37
]. Hence, the UK government policy did not recognise any adverse climate change or air pollution health effects from shale exploration and did not acknowledge any environmental justice, inequalities or ethical issues raised by shale oil and gas. In November 2019, with an election looming, the government changed its position and announced a moratorium on shale gas development in England. This appeared to be an attempt in the short term to avoid alienating its electoral base in rural areas that usually supported the Conservative government. The government argued it adopted a precautionary and sustainable approach to shale prior to this date, geared towards minimising disturbance to those living and working near to shale developments and preventing risk of any damage [140
]. However, given this rather dramatic policy shift it is therefore difficult to explain why the government does not adopt the WHO standards on air pollution from sources that would have included shale.
A critique of environmental impact assessments and their ethical deficiencies remains that they are too narrow and focussed on single issues (e.g., sustainability, utility or safety) [149
]. It could, however, be argued that EIA practitioners when dealing with shale exploration proposals are not sufficiently focussed on climate change threats and because they deal with relatively small projects, underplay the threats to global public health from the sector as a whole.
These decisions do not exist in a vacuum. The relationships especially in the USA between lawmakers and oil and chemical companies, for example, to influence policy makers have been detailed over many years [2
] and they have a major effect on environmental justice. In the UK, NGOs have explored and described such shale industry relationships but academic studies in the UK have neglected this important aspect of the issue culture [150
Ethical concerns about environmental impact assessments have been raised since at least the early 1980s in professional journals [102
]. “Ethical Impact Assessment (eIA) is an approach for contextualized ethical assessment of technology development projects by developers and decision makers involved in the project” ([151
], p. 1). Impacts would include those “that concern or affect rights and responsibilities, benefits and harms, justice”.
Guidelines do exist that could address some of the ethical dilemmas that arise although in the shale gas field it would seem consultancy companies do not necessarily recognise them or appear to act on them [105