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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.