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A Moral Defense of the Oil Industry

“It is the oil industry, not its opponents, that deserves the moral high ground. The moral arguments against oil pretend to be progressive but are in fact re-hashes of primitive philosophical doctrines. For example, ‘sustainability’ is a relic of centuries when human beings repeated the same lifestyle over and over–instead of finding better and better ways to do things.”

Imagine you are an advertising executive, and a CEO asks you: “Do you think you can help improve the reputation of my industry?”

You respond, “Sure, what are some ways your industry makes people’s live better?”

He replies, “Well, actually, our product helps people in just about everything they do. This past year, it helped take 4 million newlyweds to their dream destinations for their honeymoons. It helped bring 300 million Americans to their favorite places: yoga studios, soccer games, friends’ houses. It made possible the bulletproof vests that protect 500,000 policemen a year and the fire-resistant jackets that protect 1,000,000 firefighters a year.”

“If you do all that, how could you be unpopular?”

“We’re the oil industry.”

Why Oil Companies are Hated

Why is the oil industry so hated? After all, the oil industry does everything I said above, and many more wonderful things.

One common answer is that the oil industry has done bad things, such as the BP oil spill. But every decent-sized industry is going to have companies who do bad things. Many solar and wind companies, for example, shave costs on their expensive, unreliable energy by using materials from deadly Chinese rare-earth mines, and yet their reputation is outstanding. Yet with oil, people can see only negatives and no positives.

Before you blame the biases of the public school system and the media (which deserve plenty of blame) ask yourself this: How much do you hear from the *oil companies themselves* about all virtues of oil and oil production? Consider this. On the homepages of the three most prominent oil companies–ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron–there is not one single mention of the word “oil.”

These companies are obviously not comfortable publicly touting the virtues of their product. Why?

The Moral Argument Against Oil

Because all of us, including oil companies, have been taught that the oil industry is not *moral*. We have been taught that there’s something inherently wrong transforming our world by drilling for oil and consuming it–whether to burn in an automobile or to make a plastic bag. We have been taught that in an ideal world, there would be no oil industry. The oil industry is, on this view, a necessary evil at best–and an unnecessary evil at worst.

The moral case against oil can be boiled down to two ideas:

  1. The oil industry is inherently unsustainable. Using oil is short-range and self-destructive, and the oil industry is preventing us from adopting better, long-range solutions.
  2. The oil industry is environmentally harmful. Using oil inherently pollutes the world around us, and we should use better, non-polluting technologies.

These ideas, have become omnipresent–outside and inside of the oil industry. Ask yourself: “Do I believe the sustainability argument or the environmental argument? Do I think they’re at least partially true?” Based on my experience talking to hundreds of people in the industry and observing thousands more, the answer is likely yes.

And that’s why the oil industry is always seen negatively; its opponents use the moral objections against oil to take the moral high ground–and there is no more powerful position than the moral high ground.

Energy Ethics 101

But it is the oil industry, not its opponents, that deserves the moral high ground. The moral arguments against oil pretend to be progressive but are in fact re-hashes of primitive philosophical doctrines. For example, “sustainability” is a relic of centuries when human beings repeated the same lifestyle over and over–instead of finding better and better ways to do things.

The moral case against oil can be refuted and replaced by two concepts that marry energy knowledge and moral philosophy:

  1. Progressive energy: The ideal source of energy is not some “sustainable”–i.e., endlessly repeatable–form, but the best, cheapest, ever-improving form human ingenuity can devise. As long as human beings are free, they will continue to develop new resources from previously useless raw materials (such as shale oil). An oil industry is ideal in the same way the iPhone is an ideal for so many. It may not be the best forever, but it is the best for now and we should be grateful to have it.
  1. Environmental improvement: Energy and technology, including the oil industry, are needed to improve nature–which, left to its own devices, is resource-poor and threat-rich. Every activity has negative byproducts, but the net environmental impact of oil is a radical improvement.

Through these concepts and others, we can give the oil industry–and, more broadly, the entire energy industry–what it needs: a moral defense. This means an understanding, backed by 100% conviction, that the oil industry is fundamentally a force for good in human life. (If you want to see what this conviction looks like outside the oil industry, see the “I love fossil fuels” campaign.)

This is why my organization teaches Energy Ethics 101 to the energy industry. The millions of people who work in this industry deserve to understand why what they do is right and that why those who try to take their freedom are wrong.

Alex Epstein is Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a Principal at MasterResource, and creator of Energy Ethics 101.

22 comments

1 James { 12.05.12 at 3:46 am }

Its obvious. Oil is black so it’s racism.

2 Roberto Sarrionandia { 12.05.12 at 5:33 am }

I spoke to Fred L. Smith Jr. of the Competitive Enterprise Institute about this when he was in London. He has lots of interesting things to say on the subject, especially on the way BP handled its gulf spill fiasco.

He pointed out how the energy companies have already lost the moral battle when they say that their “primary” goal is safety… what about drilling oil!

3 Larry S { 12.05.12 at 9:54 am }

The Apple tie-in is a very current and effective argument against “sustainability” as a concept.

I would’ve thought that East Anglia would’ve put to bed AGW. Sadly, it seems that the Alinsky/Goebbels/Dewey alliance to indoctrinate environmental harm into the young is still sputtering along.

4 JavelinaTex { 12.05.12 at 10:10 am }

I have always believed in the moral righteousness of our utilization of fossil and fissile fuels; it is much of the reason I chose the industry over the “military industrial” complex.

One of the major problems is that very few people alive in the west today really remembered or experienced life without oil. The null hypothesis is to live life without oil (and natural gas) and without fossil fuels.

What it meant to harvest crops by hand, have draft horses pull wagons, take a crop to town. Have walking be a nearly sole source of transportation. Even the bicycle is a modern invention; made possible by the fossil fuel driven industrial revolution.

I have been to too many conferences where the discussion of the health and environmental problems in developing countries that would be ameliorated by more affordable fuels and power.

On a positive note, I believe that “IT” has been and will continue to be a major source of “substitution” for oil and fossil fuels. Autonomous, networked vehicles will greatly increase transportation efficiency. Less information-proxy transportation will be required by more ubiquitous and powerful networking. Even electric & fuel cell cars will still at their base be powered by fossil, fissile fuels; albeit with greatly increased efficiency. And yes, there will be a place in the market for even “renewable (sun/wind)”.

5 Marlo Lewis { 12.05.12 at 10:32 am }

Home run, Alex! I especially like the notion of “progressive” energy as vastly superior to the poverty and monotony of “sustainable” energy (what Marx [!] called the “idiocy of rural life”) — and the formulation that mankind’s natural state is “resource-poor and threat-rich.”

6 rbradley { 12.05.12 at 10:47 am }

JavelinaTex

Solar does have a niche where electricity is needed but there is nowhere to plug in.

IT advances will save energy no doubt in individual cases, but what new uses of energy will sprout up to keep demand growing. There will always be something new for energy to do in an advancing society.

7 Richard Betts { 12.05.12 at 11:27 am }

Alex: An excellent piece. It occurs to me to think, especially in light of your debate with McKibben, that what these people really believe in is magic in the form of a perpetual motion machine.

8 Eddie Devere { 12.05.12 at 11:49 am }

“Is Rearden Steel good?”

Is using coal, oil, & natural gas good?

While my definition of the good (i.e. growing life) is different than your definition of good (my guess is: increased individual long-term happiness or prosperity), we both can agree that oil/gas/natural gas (like Rearden Steel) is good because the evidence so far suggests that the positive benefits of using oil/coal/natural gas outweigh the negatives, and because the evidence so far suggests that the substitutes for oil/coal/natural gas currently available do not achieve as high of a rate of return on investment as fossil fuels (even when you include Pigovian taxes on NOx, SOx, and GHG emissions and include the costs to clean up spills.) Not only that, but using oil/coal/natural gas will likely still yield higher rates of return on investment than alternative fuels, even if you have to capture all of the NOx, SOx, and GHG emissions created when one combusts the fossil fuels.

Using either of our definitions of the “good,” the moral imperative is to obtain the highest rate of return on investment provided you respect other’s rights (life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.) We might disagree on what animal species deserve rights and we might disagree on whether climate is a property right, but we both agree that we need to speak in a moral language about what is “good”, and likely both agree that we need to remind people that they have the free will to choose between “good” and “bad.” In other words, morality is not relative; the world is not deterministic; and free will is the capability to (1) recognize the good, (2) calculate the expected positives/negatives of possible actions, and (3) choose the action that leads to be most positives compared with negatives.

Keep up the good work. The cultural air we breath is polluted with moral relativism, determinism, and defeatism, and we need more people like you to clean up this cultural mess we’ve created.

9 Chad { 12.05.12 at 11:57 am }

I find the issue your raise of environmental improvement key. I think few people who are sympathetic to environmentalists’ alleged concerns have any inkling of the magnitude of environmental improvement that has happened (and continues to happen) the world over–and which has been only possible due to fossil fuels. Nor do they have any inkling of the potential for massive environmental destruction that will occur to the extent the plug is pulled on the source of our ability to maintain (and improve upon) the livable environments that we have achieved throughout the world.

10 Max { 12.05.12 at 1:36 pm }

There isn’t an aspect of your life that isn’t effected by oil. That does not include transportation.
Get rid of oil, and your looking at the end of our civilization.

Someone needs to inform these people, their “recreational” activities will be severely curtailed if oil goes away.

11 Sean { 12.06.12 at 7:50 am }

You wonder why the industry has not been acting more in its self-interest if something else is at work?

I would argue that environmentalism has been VERY good to the oil industry by keeing the development of new resources at bay to limit supply. Tight regulations in places like California has forced small independents to leave the market. Climate change fears have seen coal displaced by natural gas, a resource that major oil companies have very large reserves of. What’s not to like if you are an oil conglomerate?

12 A Moral Defense of "Big Oil" | EPA Abuse { 12.10.12 at 5:32 pm }

[...] Read more at Master Resource. By Alex Epstein. Related posts: [...]

13 Raman { 12.11.12 at 6:14 pm }

*This* is what you should have argued in your debate against Mckibben.

14 aepstein { 12.12.12 at 11:02 am }

Thanks, Raman. Any part of it in particular? One difference between the two formats is that in the debate there’s a much-less-educated audience who is being directly given a lot of untrue things about the dangers of the oil industry.

15 Stupid Is a Characteristic of Watermelons | Daily Pundit { 12.13.12 at 2:30 am }

[...] Epstein argues the non-concept should be replaced by the concept of progressive energy: Progressive energy: The ideal source of energy is not some “sustainable”–i.e., endlessly repeatable–form, but the best, cheapest, ever-improving form human ingenuity can devise. [...]

16 Nick de Cusa { 12.19.12 at 8:38 am }

If any one of you knows any French-speaking person who would like to read this article in French, I’ve translated it and published it here on Contrepoints (the free market news pure player for French speakers) : http://www.contrepoints.org/2012/12/16/108105-une-defense-morale-des-petroles

Many thanks to Alex Epstein and MasterResource.

17 Why Doesn’t The “King” Want His Kingdom To Be Prosperous? « AUSTRIAN ECONOMICS ADDICT { 12.21.12 at 11:41 am }

[...] A Moral Defense Of The Oil Industry, by Alan Epstein also at Masterresource.com. Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first [...]

18 Raman { 12.27.12 at 11:49 am }

Alex: agreed, the debate format is a very difficult one in which to make reasoned points based on fundamental principles. You did very well all things considered, and thank you for it. Some feedback which may or may not be useful to you, recognizing that all of this is in hindsight:

I wonder if the “food for food” argument and the “big picture climate deaths statistic” were both too abstract for the audience. In your third paragraph above you make the issue much more concrete, and I think that more of that would have helped during the debate. Following up Bill’s 20 disaster scenarios with 20 or 30 positive concretes would have been very effective, though I recognize the difficulty of coming up with them on the fly.

If you decide not to address specifics of the opponents argument i.e. McKibben’s 20 disaster scenarios, do that consistently. For example, you raised the issue of McKibben’s scare-tactics with the use of the word “acidification”, but he was able to convincingly refute that. So the audience would then assume all of your points are similarly refutable. Stick to your argument if possible instead of trying to do a drive-by on only one point out of many.

You argued during the debate about *some* companies doing bad things, but your point is much more effective above by giving the concrete example of the Chinese rare earth mines as you did above (I don’t recall that being given during the debate).

Your sustainability and “progress” points above are excellent. During the debate, Mckibben was able to BS his way to the position that *he* represented progress while you represented the “old guard”. I’m sure you know hundreds of examples of massive progress in the fossil fuels industry, fracing to name a huge one! That would have been excellent to go along with your nuclear and hydro points which already had Bill on the defensive.

I don’t want to seem too negative. You did very well against a fundamentally dishonest and savvy debater. Thanks Alex!

19 Jeremy { 07.21.13 at 12:17 pm }

“”For example, “sustainability” is a relic of centuries when human beings repeated the same lifestyle over and over–instead of finding better and better ways to do things. “”

I’m confused by this statement. Where are these better ways of doing things? Hasn’t our economy been gas driven for about 100 years now? Automobile gas mileage has increased but we haven’t found a viable alternative to an oil driven economy.

Additionally, the sustainability argument comes from the factually supported fear that we are depleting a resource far faster than we are finding viable substitutes for said resource. A related concern is that the oil and gas industry are stymieing efforts to develop substitutes.

Sustainability is no more a relic of times past than conservation of energy is an outdated concept. What am I missing?

20 aepstein { 07.21.13 at 3:11 pm }

“Sustainability” as an ideal amounts to “repeatability.” I’m in favor of “progressiveness,” which means choosing the most efficient way at any given point in time, whether or not the raw material is “depleting.” That policy leads to “better and better ways to do things–which is not the same as fundamental shifts every decade–i.e., it’s still progressive to use gasoline just as it’s still progressive to use steel.

21 Jack Brown { 08.11.13 at 12:52 am }

Hmmm, an oil lobbyist touting the benefits of an oil economy. To try to make a love of oil a “Philosophy” is pretty absurd in my opinion. You can’t really put a marketing spin on an environmental timebomb. I see this article in a similar vain of how to defend a cigarette, or heroin. “Think of all the temporary happiness those products bring to their users. Naysayers that warn of cancer, health risks and overdoses are just progressive naysayers against our moral use of nicotine!”. Simply put, the use of oil is not sustainable, scaling its use globally and trying to mask it’s effects on our environment as an energy source for the masses cannot be sustained. The price people pay is ultimately endangering the people of this country and other countries such as Israel. We are spending way too much money defending our energy dependence. Do you really think Al Qaeda, Iran or Saudi Arabia would be a credible threat without oil? I had spent many years working in the traditional (or should I say sustainable sense?) trying to combat terrorism in the Aerospace and Defense industry. I worked on surveillance and weapons systems throughout my career to defend us against terrorism, but I finally realized that the true way to defeat these enemies of our country and way of life is through their wallet. Over the last 4 years I have adopted ‘sustainable’ energy. I took a massive pay cut, changed jobs, I sold my gas guzzler for an Electric Vehicle (which I am loving so much I will probably sell my M3 300 hp sports car too because the EV is so much more fun to drive!) and I put Solar PV on my house and I make my own fuel. I now have stopped paying the oil companies $7500 a year for gasoline (+ $400 for motor oil). I still have kept my opinions on individual liberty and I can still care for the environment. I see Mr. Epstein’s approach as a slick marketing technique to, as he says “re-hashes of primitive philosophical doctrines” that does not make a very convincing argument to be held as “moral”.

22 Joey B { 09.04.13 at 9:40 am }

There is no question that the oil reserves will run out. Developing new technologies now will only help our society in the long-term. Many people are so self contained and unwilling to alter their lifestyle to use less oil. When gas prices were high, many SUV drivers were getting rid of these vehicles. Gas prices came down, and our roads are full of them again. Do we really NEED vehicles this large? I see some use for them, like the family road trip, etc, but for daily driving? I understand recreational activities such as boating, but is this really necessary as a regular activity?
Car racing? Entertainment, sure, but how much oil is required to sustain this sport? Tires, motor oil, fuel? I’m sure those fans can find some other exciting thing to watch like roller derby if they really like watching things go round and round a track for hours.
What I mean to say is: there is no question that oil is important and essential for our lives, but if we want to stretch its availability, we need to cut back on our use as a whole. If some are so self-centered that they only think about what is here to use NOW, it’s sad that they cannot widen their perspective to consider how that will affect our world later.
If oil was not in such demand for activities and use that is not necessary, it would lower the demand and price, which hopefully would reduce political problems in countries like Nigeria, where the drilling and need to export the product to meet demand is causing the locals’ lives to be devastated.
I’m not saying we should all drive electric cars (whose batteries require heavy mining of those minerals), just drive more economical gassers and diesels, and cut back on the enterprise of car racing, motor boating, and other high oil consumption activities.
Cheers.

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