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Why We Should Love the Oil Companies (Straight talk from an industry outsider)

“We should never forget that the oil industry, whatever its problems (and most of those are caused by bad government policies) is the single most vital industry in the world.”

This election year, America faces many crucial legislative choices in the oil/gas industry–and the PR strategy of oil companies will certainly affect the outcome.

What should oil company executives do to improve their industry’s reputation and secure their freedom to produce the lifeblood of civilization?

Unfortunately, the conventional answer is: pretend they’re not oil companies. BP’s John Browne some years ago infamously declared his company’s aspirations to be “Beyond Petroleum”–a slogan that obviously does not aid the industry’s desire for more petroleum drilling rights. (BP, to its credit, no longer trumpets this slogan, which defaults BP back to the implicit original, British Petroleum.)

Chevron’s mega-PR-campaign, “We Agree,” features 10 empty slogans, not one of which expresses pride in producing oil, and some of which are downright offensive. “Oil companies should think more like technology companies,” the campaign says–as if the ability to extract the greatest portable fuel known to man from once-useless shale rock 10,000 feet below the surface of the Earth is not a technological achievement.

This kind of posturing is self-defeating–no one believes that oil companies are anything other than oil companies. And it is a disservice to both their industry, which does not deserve flagellation (except when they rent-seek or engage in self-flagellaton), and to the American people, who desperately need to know the positive importance of the oil industry in their lives.

We should never forget that the oil industry, whatever its problems (and most of those are caused by bad government policies) is the single most vital industry in the world.

It has revolutionized agriculture; without oil and natural gas-based agriculture, we would not have the fertilizers, tractors, and transport that enable farmers to feed a record 7 billion people with the lowest malnutrition level in history. In other words, the oil industry solved world hunger. Wouldn’t that be profitable to point out?

The oil industry has revolutionized health care. Every hospital lives and dies based on just-in-time transportation of supplies, sanitary plastic devices and disposables, and petroleum-based pharmaceuticals. Without hydrocarbon-based synthetic pesticides, the U.S. would still be cursed with insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, which afflict much of the undeveloped world.  Wouldn’t that be profitable to point out?

I could multiply the examples to every other industry, because every other industry benefits in proportion to the availability of cheap, plentiful, reliable, portable fuel–and that is what the oil industry works every day to bring to us.

The benefits of oil are all around us. If most Americans truly understood these benefits, they would surely have a different view of the industry. They would think more like 1920s best-selling author Bruce Barton, who said, “My friends, it is the juice of the fountain of eternal youth…. It is health. It is comfort. It is success.”

As the Founder and the Director of the Center for Industrial Progress, I make it my job to educate the public about the incredibly positive role energy and industry, particularly the oil industry, play in their lives. For the last five years, I have been giving speeches around the country, especially at universities, about how the oil industry produces the lifeblood of civilization, and about how we should value the industry and above all value its freedom to produce.

You might expect that audiences would reject this message and write me off as an industry shill. But the exact opposite happens–because the truth is on my side and I don’t hide it or apologize for it. I explain to them that I came to my conclusions after studying carefully the relationship between oil and human life over the past 150 years, and welcome them to do the same.

In fact, not only do audiences not run me out of the lecture halls, they get excited about oil production, and a little bit upset that they never learned this anywhere else. For example, most people are blown away when I point out how much of whatever room I’m lecturing in is made of oil–the insulation in the walls that kept us warm, the plastics in their electronics, the (synthetic) rubber in their shoes, the makeup on their faces, the glasses or contacts on their eyes, the paint on the walls, and so on. They’re excited because this stuff is genuinely exciting, and because we are never taught it.

To be honest, I was initially surprised by how positive a reception I got: “After leaving his talk, I understood how rich my life is because of oil”; “Mr. Epstein’s lecture made me realize that oil is a commodity which civilization cannot survive without and therefore its production is not only vital, but moral”; “I left with a greater appreciation of the role oil plays in my own life.”

But then I realized why: by focusing on the positive of oil and the choice America faced about whether to pursue that positive to the next level, or forgo it and suffer, it made them care about and even love the oil industry.

I like to call this method of education “Aspirational Advocacy,” because it means connecting our educational efforts with the audience’s deepest values and aspirations. It is both the most genuine and most effective way I know of persuading people; I am not aware of any other approach that gets people outside the oil industry to love the oil industry.

America should love the oil companies, and if they change their strategy, millions of more Americans will love the oil companies.

Alex Epstein, a Principal at MasterResource, is founder and director of the Center for Industrial Progress. He can be reached here.

13 comments

1 nofreewind { 06.15.12 at 6:48 am }

The fact that this article even has to be written is evidence of our dumb, blind and spoiled society. Spoiled by oil. Incredible, every American, especially prosperous ones, realize the enormous benefits of oil every single second of their lives, yet many live in complete denial this effect. Thank You Mr. Oilman!!

2 Isaac { 06.15.12 at 7:03 am }

Alex, I just want to say that I agree with you one hundred percent. I found you through the Ayn Rand Institute’s Laissez Faire blog, in an interview about Earth Day, and I’ve just been blown away by how positive a message you’ve been bringing, it’s really changed the way I think about the issue.

3 Jon Boone { 06.15.12 at 10:41 am }

The schizophrenic self loathing evident in the PR campaigns of Chevron and BP has an Enronesque–and quite sinister–purpose. Oil, along with electricity (which has little direct connection with oil), is the well spring of modernity: it is not only ubiquitous; it is essential. No one can do without it and be a player in the world’s economy. This is something that Ken Lay understood two decades ago–and what CEO’s like GE’s Jeff Immelt know today.

Because oil will always have willing buyers, why not profit from offering up humble pie, as BP and Chevron are doing, and as GE has done for more than a decade, after buying up Enron’s wind operation when the latter went belly-up?

GE Oil & Gas employs 33,000 and provides a range of services to gas and oil companies. It is also the world’s fourth largest manufacturer/distributor of wind equipment. GE’s investment in so-called “alternative electricity producers” like wind has helped it to achieve greater returns to its investors by providing renewables tax shelters that have helped the corporation pay no federal income taxes for years, no mean achievement. There is no evidence that such a policy has reduced its oil marketshare. Quite the contrary.

At the same time, GE, BP, Chevron, Shell, Exelon, ExxonMobile, Duke Energy, AES, Fla Power & Light (NextEra), Weyerhaeuser, and Siemens are using these tax shelters to gull the public into thinking that their renewables programs are mitigating the environmental downside of oil extraction. One only has to look at how politicians are now selling renewables to see how effective this PR campaign has been. Only two days ago did Colorado’s Mark Udall pitch the promise that extending the Congressional tax credit for wind would work to end our dependence on foreign oil. Immelt and his kith were no doubt pleased.

The whole enterprise is a cynical, corrupt, contemptuous, public-be-damned initiative to make more money at the expense of rate and taxpayers.

4 Billy { 06.15.12 at 12:01 pm }

More from this author please.

5 Eddie Devere { 06.15.12 at 2:14 pm }

The oil&gas industry, in general, is a pretty good example of free market capitalism at work, and as Alex stated, they provide an extraordinary amount of value to society.
And as Alex stated, the advertising arm of the industry seems to have no desire to state its positive benefits or to state how the oil&gas industry is good of an example of free market capitalism. (My least favorite example of the disconnect between reality and fantasy is Exxon-Mobil’s advertisement about “algae oil.”)
I think that the disconnect partially stems from the fact that most people in the industry that I know (friends & relatives) are so busy and generally enjoy their jobs, that they don’t really stop to think about all of those AGW environmentalists or peak oil theorists who show up in the media all of the time. They leave it to the advertising arm of the industry (who appears to be swayed by AGW/peak oil concerns) for PR because most people in the industry just what to do their jobs and don’t want to or have the time to do local PR for their oil&gas company. (such as letters to the editor of local papers or showing up on local public radio stations.)
I recently had a relative who passed away at the ripe age of 75 of a stroke while working on the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. He loved what he did, but he never talked about it at family get-togethers. This appears to be typical for industry: hard working, fast-paced, competitive, and not boastful.

I’m glad that there are people like Alex, Rob, & the MR/CIP teams who have the time to highlight the benefits of the oil&gas industry because the people I know in the industry are way too busy to write a blog about what they do or about how they are helping society.

6 Heike Larson { 06.15.12 at 7:13 pm }

Education has a role to play here, too. Most schools celebrate Earth Day; few get children to understand the role that oil and other resources play in our lives. What a missed opportunity: children love to find out what things are made out of. I personally love answering those questions – and it just astounds me how often I say “oil” when my 3-year-old asks me that question. When he has to guess what something is made off, and it’s not obviously glass, wood or metal, he’ll always answer “oil”!

7 Anton { 06.16.12 at 2:04 am }

I don’t think anyone is denying how essential hydrocarbons are to the modern world, even though it’s probably the refineries, factories and R&D that deserve most of the praise, since sucking oil out of the ground is relatively basic. Obviously it’s the lobbying, politics and environmental concerns that people have the most issues with, not the oil industry in general. It seems like the article is trying to defend the parts of the oil industry that are obviously good and need no defence, thus avoiding the actual issues.

8 Gavin Skeen { 06.16.12 at 7:36 am }

Alex, I followed a link that a friend shared on facebook. You make some interesting “aspirational” arguments. But the oil industry is one that remains largely on on the defensive regarding public image, albeit due at least in part to its own altruistic PR campaigns, but also due to media coverage of some of its worst mistakes. I would imagine that, even despite the positive reception you express here, you must come up against numerous objections of all sorts in throughout course of your speaking engagements. How do you go about addressing these objections? What would be the most succinct way for the lay person to address the most common objectiions were they to come up in conversation?

9 aepstein { 06.16.12 at 9:59 am }

Gavin and Anton, both of you raise important issues. Gavin, here is an example of how I do this in talk and Q&A form in “Fracking Amazing.”
http://youtu.be/KoaFEtZKg9w
http://youtu.be/et7QCk7VXHM

The important thing to note here is that different industries and more broadly different professions are treated incredibly differently with regard to the issue of risks and mistakes. The oil industry if *defined* by negatives. Anton, your comment, for example, brushes off casually the fact that oil companies produce the lifeblood of civilization, treating it as obvious and universally known. This is so far from true, unfortunately. And you discuss the negatives with no context as to a) their weight relative to the positive and b) the fundamental role of government in magnifying them. In “Fracking Amazing” I cover all of this from a method and content point of view.

Gavin, I have found that the key to things like addressing oil spills or contaminated wells (see the opening of my Greenpeace debate at http://www.youtube.com/industrialprogress) is to set the context that everything has risks and benefits, and that when evaluating anything we need to look at its risks *and* benefits, as well as the risks and benefits of the alternatives. The other side, as Chris Horner has said, likes to compare A’s risks to B’s benefits where “green energy” is B and real energy is A. It is not at all useful to deny the problems, as that seems evasive, but it is even worse to define the oil industry by its problems.

This last is what BP does to this day. All their PR is about how they’re still working to clean up the mess they made, not how the core of their activities is to create a more prosperous, healthier, and, yes, cleaner world.

10 Jon Boone { 06.16.12 at 12:52 pm }

“All their PR is about how they’re still working to clean up the mess they made , not how the core of their activities is to create a more prosperous, healthier, and, yes, cleaner world.”

Let me repeat: BP’s seemingly bipolar PR is about producing more revenue, getting rate and taxpayers to pony up dollars for its dysfunctional “reformational” renewable schemes while making the corporation appear contrite for any “problems” it has caused. It does produce real power but it also courts fake power (i.e., green energy) in an effort both to excuse its “risks” and to rake in the dough. Green energy scams would be nothing without the active support from the likes of BP.

There is no “need” to do this, since the use of oil is the industry’s own best advocate. But clearly the industry’s leaders have chosen another, more cynical tack. This is not about BP’s or GE’s ignorance of its abilities and accomplishments. Quite the contrary. They know precisely what they’re doing–and that’s making more money for their investors: the name of the game in the corporate world, by law.

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