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Taking the Moral High Ground on Fossil Fuels

“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. . . . 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.”

Yesterday, I discussed the idea that fossil fuels actually improve the planet for human life. This idea has major implications for how the fossil fuel industry represents itself to the public.

Because of the narrative that fossil fuels harm the planet, the industry has tended to fight for its existence defensively, with the argument that it is a necessary evil, to be tolerated because of the jobs it creates, or because of other economic benefits.

But that approach doesn’t work, and it shouldn’t work. To their credit, most people are unwilling to tolerate something they consider immoral. To win the hearts and minds of the public, the energy industry needs to present itself as a necessary good, because taking the moral high ground in the fossil fuel debate is the only winning strategy.

Taking the Moral High Ground

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 lives 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.” [1][2]

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

“We’re the oil industry.”

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. (Though given that the Gulf of Mexico naturally “spills” two Exxon Valdez’s of oil annually, the reaction to the spill was wildly out of proportion.[3])

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. [4]

Yet with oil, people 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<[5], Shell[6], and Chevron[7]—there is not one single mention of the word “oil.” [N.B. As this post goes up, Chevron's home page temporarily says "Producing Oil to Drive Progess."]

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

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 with 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.

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.
  2. 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.[8])

This is why my organization teaches energy companies and associations how to take the high ground in their communications. 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 away their freedom are wrong.


[1] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Local Police,” accessed February 15, 2013.

[2] U.S. Fire Administration, “National Fire Protection Association Estimates,” accessed February 15, 2013.

[3] Roger Mitchell, “Tons of Oil Seeps into Gulf of Mexico Each Year,” NASA Earth Observatory, accessed February 15, 2013.

[4] Simon Parry, “In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale,” Mail Online, January 26, 2011, accessed May 10, 2013.

[5] ExxonMobil, accessed February 24, 2013.

[6] Shell, accessed February 24, 2013.

[7] Chevron, accessed February 24, 2013.

[8 ]“I Love Fossil Fuels,” Facebook Page, accessed February 17, 2013.


1 H.E. Dan Shasteen { 08.28.13 at 8:15 pm }

Fine article Mr. Epstein. I’m constantly amazed that the most non-violent, peaceful and cooperative economic system know to man (the free market) is labeled exploitative and harmful, and the choice of energy which has arisen from such system is labeled harmful and destructive. Your thesis makes a vital point. Defenders of the results of the free market must stop making apologies. The results of the market are the best that can be obtained with the current technology and constraints.

2 How Fossil Fuel Industries Can Defend Themselves | EPA Abuse { 08.31.13 at 4:01 pm }

[...] and applied that idea to two important strategies for any debate on the value of fossil fuels: taking the moral high ground and taking the environmental high [...]

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