Friday, January 22, 2016

Ethics of Geomechanics: 

A Thriving Discipline and Its Growing Responsibility

by Mehrdad Soltanzadeh
Mehrdad Soltanzadeh

Geomechanics Advisor
PetroGem Inc.
Calgary, Alberta (Canada)

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this paper solemnly engage the author

Picture Credit: Surficial bitumen spill close to a major thermal operation site in Alberta, Canada (source:

During the last two decades, reservoir geomechanics has been showered with attention from petroleum industry, academia and regulatory institutions mainly because modern technologies, new perspectives and economic opportunities have led to exponential growth of aggressive underground operations such as massive hydraulic fracturing, waste disposal, underground storage of greenhouse gases and in-situ thermal projects, all calling for geomechanics not just to help them with increasing their efficiency but also to answer some crucial questions on their safety and potential risks such as excessive ground deformation, fluid leakage, air, soil and water contamination and induced seismicity. In fact, none of these concerns are quite new to the world but they have never been operated in a scale as large as today's plus that, in the current sensitive social platform, their economic, sociopolitical and environmental importance can hardly be overlooked. This popularity has come with a huge load of professional and ethical responsibility for geomechanics as a discipline that is primarily responsible for assessment of these risks.

When it comes to the application of geosciences, relevant ethical issues will fall under the umbrella of "geoethics", a developing branch of ethics that is much younger and less famous than its celebrity cousin, bioethics. While growing to adolescence, theoretical and practical aspects of geoethics seem to receive less attention from the technical community (including geomechanics experts) in comparison to the environmental activists, ethics philosophers, politicians and business managers. Nevertheless, with its crucial role in assessment of risks and concerns, joining the discourse of geoethics is an excellent opportunity for geomechanics to prove its commitment to the welfare of the society and environment. To accomplish this task, geomechanics community (that includes regulatory agencies, academia, and industry) along with other parties need to think of establishing a comprehensive framework that, at the very least, will include the following elements:

Ethical Platform: Developing or adopting an ethical platform on how to treat problems that are imposing risks on the environment and society and how to define a balance between economic development, preservation, and social prosperity is the first step. Professional integrity and scientific honesty are obviously inseparable parts of such a platform but it will definitely need to be much more comprehensive than a general code of ethics for a specific profession.

Acknowledging Uncertainty: Open and clear recognition of the existing uncertainties in different processes of data acquisition, modeling, design, operation and monitoring is critical. All the decisions made by geomechanics experts involve a (remarkable) level of uncertainty and, consequently, all the relevant risks must be assessed by bringing the uncertainty into account. Any analysis needs to clearly acknowledge and address all the different potential scenarios that may put the society and environment and at risk and provide the best possible estimation of their probability to the decision makers and public. Different obstacles that may make this process difficult are scientific prejudice and overconfidence, technical ignorance, communication inefficiency, and lack of professional integrity.

Regulations: Standard design, operational, and monitoring codes need to be developed by regulatory institutes in collaboration with the scientific community and industry to ensure the minimum requirements for safety and preservation are fulfilled. Similar to other disciplines (take the field of ‘construction’ as an example), coming up with such regulatory guidelines will need investment from all the parties especially the governments and intergovernmental agencies. These investments are used to form specialized research institutes with the duty of providing the best-practice guidelines. Enforcing ultra-conservative advices backed up with justifications such as "lack of knowledge" or "immaturity of science" usually is not a smart long-term move. With such lame excuses in effect, several of the currently existing developments in the world would never have had a chance to happen. The main role of regulatory institutes is taking the lead on developing knowledge, science and technology whenever necessary.

Education: Training on environmental, social and economic aspects of relevant risks and their potential impacts is crucial. Such training should be a part of a systemic education in academia and industry for geomechanics practitioners. Different elements of ethics, especially geoethics must be a part of such educational system. It is important to ensure that all the practitioners are familiar with the codes of conduct through proper education. Also, professional associations who are regulating the practice of the discipline need to show more profession-specific attention to education and qualification of their members.

Scientific Freedom: Importance of freedom of research and science cannot be emphasized enough. All the involved sectors need to ensure the circulation of knowledge is not bottlenecked for any unnecessary reason such as politics or higher profit. Practitioners need to feel "free" in expressing their opinion on the matters concerning the society and environment regardless of the outcomes. It is important that proper whistleblower policies will be in effect in all the areas with potential georisks.

Transparency: Without a minimum level of transparency in providing details on different processes of design, execution, monitoring and observation, preventing undesired situation will be very difficult. Along with respecting the interests of the investors, industry needs to ensure that confidentiality does not act as a barrier for sharing crucial information with public.

Public Communication: Communicating with the society and media can be quite a challenge for the technical communities including reservoir geomechanics due to their complex physical nature. Nevertheless, this cannot be used as an excuse for not providing understandable explanation for the issues related to the welfare of the environment and society. Geomechanics needs to come up with creative methods to explain itself to the general audience with minimum technical knowledge.

Some of the addressed points may already be in place and practiced to some extent but it is still hard to overlook the urgent need for their development and improvement. Fortunately, several other disciplines (for instance, "oil and gas transportation") have been wrestling with similar issues for their entire life and their experiences may be effectively used to ensure the practice of geomechanics is aligned with ethics and professional integrity and welfare of the society and environment.

Some Relevant Links

Geoethics and geological culture: awareness, responsibility and challenges.

Geoethics: Ethical Challenges and Case Studies in Earth Sciences.

Geoethics: the Role and Responsibility of Geoscientists.

Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections.