Is working in Oil & Gas immoral?

We often look at the Oil & Gas industry and wonder how anyone would be willing to work there. All the environmental catastrophes, the carbon footprint of cars powered by oil and lately the fracking business, they’re all deemed to be the devil institutionalized. So on Reddit, the question was asked: Is working in Oil & Gas immoral?

Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong).
~ Wikipedia

Image Problems

No doubt Oil & Gas has a bad image. They are providing oil for cars, planes and ships that is burned up and in the form of carbon dioxide plays a significant role Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change in climate change and the human effect on global warming. This link is already pretty bad for a reputation of an entire industry. If we look further into it, we find accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident and the Exxon Valdez oil spill incident, which were both in the US and, therefore, a huge thing in the media. On top of it, all the movie Gasland fans the fear of fracking. Also, the whole globalization thing is contrary to a many people’s values and beliefs. Some bad practices in developing countries were uncovered that also did not help the image of the Oil and Gas industry.

U.S. Navy Mechanized Landing Craft (LCMs) are anchored along the shoreline as Navy and civilian personnel position hoses during oil clean-up efforts on Smith island. The massive oil spill occurred when the commercial tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground while transiting the waters of Prince William Sound on March 24th.

U.S. Navy Mechanized Landing Craft (LCMs) are anchored along the shoreline as Navy and civilian personnel position hoses during oil clean-up efforts on Smith island. The massive oil spill occurred when the commercial tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground while transiting the waters of Prince William Sound on March 24th.

Why would you want to work in Oil & Gas?

One of the first points that come to mind is money. Pecunia non olet, one might say. With starting salaries in a six figure range, you have a major point in taking up these jobs. On top of that depending on the market situation the job security isn’t all too bad if you play things right. Compared to academia where you have a low four digit salary as a Phd and limited time contracts, this is quite a point. We should not forget about technology in this context. In the big companies you have access to outstanding technology. Most companies pay academia for access to their newest developments and also have their own research and devlopment units. If you?re into that kind of thing you also get to go overseas and work there for a while (okay sometimes you don?t really have a choice.)

The truth in between

As always the truth is somewhere in between. When you work in Oil & Gas you can often see how the companies are greening up the business. Now there are a lot of dimensions to this. The first thing that comes to mind, is that they just do it for the image. It’s good for someone’s image to be green and it’s good for the employees. I know not one person that intentionally wants to destroy the environment. The employees feel better about themselves when working in a company that is working on being more environmentally friendly. But also think about what is at stake, when an oil company does something bad for the environment, that is going to be in the media! So being green actually pays off, because you get less of the bad image credit.
Addtitionally, being green often saves you some cash. If you tell your employees to switch off the computer to save a polar bear from drowning, in the end you will reduce your energy bill and save a lot of money. But these are all monetary and image points, there is another big point. People are actually joining Oil & Gas companies to change things for the better. They want to reduce the environmental impact of that particular company. They have the motivation to change things one way or the other. So if I were a hiring manager, I’d think twice if you want someone like this as your opponent. They have a lot of motivation and energy and why not use this potential to improve your own company?! It is definitely worth it.

Greener than you think

These companies are bigger than you think. I’ve worked with two companies and they have a lot of programs to reduce their environmental footprint. You do feel good about yourself working there. You switch off your computer; you drive a prius and do carsharing, or take the train in my case and get a nice discount on the ticket. You read a lot about the efforts people in the company go through to make it green. How many times have I had to wave around like an idiot to trigger the motion detector and switch on the lights because I was reading a paper or concentrating on my code. Those are many points that make a huge impact if you extrapolate to the size of these major companies.

Idealism and Opportunism

In a perfect world, we would all have enough food and ride the bike to work and have zero carbon footprint with anything we do. Let’s be honest, it just doesn’t work that way. I’ve argued with enough people about Oil & Gas, that drive their huge car and get a plastic bag at the grocery store everytime they’re there to carry home their imported soy latte mix. This is hypocrisy at it’s best and it just doesn?t work to demonize oil, when using it with every step you take. However, on the other side I think if your company doesn’t go there, someone else will do it, doesn’t work either. When it comes to weigh up the moral value it just breaks down to opportunism and an excuse to do it. It ignores around the real problem if it’s immoral or not.

Check your values

  • You’re against Oil & Gas — that’s okay. You ride your bike to work and in general, you are very aware of your carbon footprint. I can very well understand that. You’d be better of with an environmental company however much an oil company does for sustainability, you will most likely be much happier somewhere else.
  • You’re against Oil & Gas — You drive your SUV to walmart. Please check what you’re doing before criticizing someone else for working there. If you use oil and gas everyday and don?t do anything about your carbon footprint and your oil use, you might want to reevaluate what you really condemn.
  • You may work for Oil & Gas — that’s okay as well. You can work for the sustainability of your company and reduce their environmental impact. You will not be exactly green but you will do something about the impact of one of the biggest incluences on our environment.
  • You may work for Oil and not do anything about the environment. If that’s in line with your values, it’s okay, but don’t argue against the impact of oil companies on the environment. [email protected] not changing anything in the game and we’re not at all there yet. You work for a company that contributes to the entire system that has a large impact on the environment.
  • You just do it for the money. You are willing to sell your integrity concerning your values for the big money, corporations offer you. The corporations are giving you an opportunity to change something about their practices but you play along contrary to what you believe in. This is problematic in more ways than just working for Oil & Gas.
Your values will be weighed.

Your values direct the way

In the end you will have to decide, what actions line up with your values. As long as you keep your integrity, it’s okay to do what you’re doing. There will always be people that apply other standards and you will have to decide if you let them apply their standards to your behaviour and if their standards are valid.
Oil and Gas will be around for a while and we are lacking alternatives. When you decide to work in Oil and Gas you will be a contributing member of society, however, you have the chance to change the game. There are many ways to pave the way to change the energy business and some are within these companies. The degree of morality depends a lot on your intentions, actions and decisions. Per se it’s not immoral, but you can vary the degree of integrity and morality according to your actions. Also you should not forget that there are companies out there varying in their degree of sustainability and their effort to protect the environment. The decision is yours.

My very personal opinion

I personally find it immoral to destroy the environment for profit. Also, I find integrity and loyality an important part of morality. Working in Oil and Gas can be done in a moral way.

  • Do not betray your values.
  • Work towards a more sustainable solution.
  • Reduce your own impact on the environment.

You’re a small fish in a big pond, but you have a lot of allies and you can make a change on a lot of different levels.

I have a couple companies on a blacklist, that I would not want to work for, whatever the amount of money I was offered. I hope I can make some small change happen and I hope I can reduce my personal footprint to a minimum.

Personally, I think oil and gas are some very important and valuable resources that should not be burned up like we do at the moment. They’re used in manufacturing of pretty much anything and are even essential in a lot of medicinesHow does crude oil heal – German Science Show Quarks & Co.

What’s your opinion on this matter?

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... is a geophysicist by heart. He works at the intersection of machine learning and geoscience. He is the founder of The Way of the Geophysicist and a deep learning enthusiast. Writing mostly about computational geoscience and interesting bits and pieces relevant to post-grad life.

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  1. Jesper — thank you for sharing this. I don’t spend much time in reddit, so I’m glad you pointed to that thread. And your response is perfectly considered and balanced.

    Now I feel like writing my own response, though I’m not sure I can do much more than echo what you’ve said.

    • Hi Matt,

      thanks for your response! Well, one point that bugs me a little is not mentioned possible human rights violations, on the other hand that is pretty obvious to be downright immoral.

      However, another point that bugs me would be openness. Open data, open access and open code and the shop rights you wrote about on your blog. So I guess there is still some space for expanding.


  2. Always an interesting discussion, and certainly one with many facets. As someone who left Big Oil for teaching, I agree with many of your value statements and really like this post.

    In my classes, I have students turn the issue 180 degrees. In this case, the question becomes: Is it immoral NOT to work for oil and gas? Consider that ‘hydrocarbons’ are more than fuel… they are plastics used in the medical industry, compounds used in manufacturing that replace other natural materials (metal ores, lumber, etc.). The crude that comes out of a well is paraffins, alkanes, etc. Until it reaches the refinery, it is complex hydrocarbon chains.

    Then, the question becomes: Are you saving the world by working for Big Oil?

    Personally, I use this to lead into a discussion of consumerism, and my own personal belief that reducing demand is key to reducing ANY footprint (mining, petroleum, etc.)

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