Hydraulic Fracturing: The Project

As I have been hinting, I’m currently caught up in a collaborative project on engineering, ethics and policy related to hydraulic fracturing.

The idea for the project began to take shape in conversations I was having with my colleague, Chloé Arson, who is over in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech. We were exploring opportunities for new directions in engineering ethics education.

I cannot now say which of them emerged first, but there are twin intuitions at the heart of our discussion:

  1. Most interesting problems in engineering – and for ethics and policy related to engineering – involve not only risk but also uncertainty, because the underlying dynamics of the problem situation are poorly or only partially understood; and
  2. We should aim to prepare engineers-in-training to engage in ethical inquiry and policy inquiry at the same time they are engaging in empirical inquiry and in design.

I joked at the time that the second intuition goes both ways: we need engineers who can think like ethicists and ethicists who can think like engineers.

It was Chloé who suggested the focus on hydraulic fracturing as something of pressing current interest that is also within reach of her own expertise as an environmental engineer, especially in that rock mechanics are involved.

(I have to admit I was delighted simply to know that there is such a thing in the world as “rock mechanics”!)

We secured a small internal grant from Georgia Tech and put together a team for the project, the aim of which is to develop models and materials for ethics education that we can implement in the years to follow. We would develop and refine the approach through two workshops..

The first workshop, which focused more on engineering, risk and uncertainty, and which involved a number of invited guests from off campus, took place in November 2014. A collection of notes from that event have just been posted online, through a service of the Georgia Tech Library.

The “engineering group” of our project team worked on developing a detailed simulation of the mechanics of hydraulic fracturing – in technical jargon, the “stimulation” of a well – at the borehole level, preliminary results of which were presented at the first workshop, with the aim of filling in some of the uncertainty around the process and identifying (or ruling out) risks.

Meanwhile, the “ethics group” – and there was overlap between the two groups – worked on understanding the policy landscape, especially the ways in which risks were identified and mitigated.

On the second day of the workshop, I had some rather pointed things to say about acceptable risk, which opened up the conversation considerably and pointed the way to the next steps in our project. I’ll post something about that here, by and by.

The second workshop, which will focus on ethics, policy and, especially, pedagogy, is planned for April 2015 and will correspond with the Sparks Forum on Ethics and Engineering, an annual event organized by the Center for Ethics and Technology.

I’ll be presenting a more complete progress report at the upcoming meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, next month, but that won’t keep me from posting a few observations here over the next few days.

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