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Is working in oil and gas immoral?

Someone asked this question on According to Wikipedia, morality — from the Latin moralitas meaning character or proper behaviour — is the differentiation of decisions and actions between those that are ‘good’ (or right) and those that are ‘bad’ (or wrong).

There’s no doubt the industry has a bad image. It provides fuel for cars, planes, and ships that is burned up and, in the form of carbon dioxide, plays a significant role in climate change and the human effect on global warming. This link alone is pretty bad for the reputation of an industry. If we look further we find accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon and ExxonMobil Valdez incidents. In addition, the movie Gasland fans the fear of fracking. And the global nature of the business is contrary to a lot of people’s values and beliefs.

Why would you want to work in oil and gas? One of the first points that come to mind is money. ‘Pecunia non olet,’ one might say. With starting salaries in the high five- or six-figure range, you have a major incentive. On top of that, depending on the market situation, the job security isn’t too bad if you play things right. Quite a contrast to academia where you likely have a low four or five digit salary and limited-time contracts. And we should not forget about technology — in big companies you have access to the best tools and data.

When you work in oil and 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. Being green is good for a corporation’s image and it’s good for morale. (I don’t know one person that deliberately wants to destroy the environment.) Additionally, 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 there is another big point. People are actually joining oil and gas companies to change things for the better. They want to reduce the environmental impact of that particular company and they have the motivation to change things.

Check your values
• You’re against oil and gas. You ride your bike to work and in general you are very aware of your carbon footprint. However much an oil company does for sustainability, you will most likely be happier working somewhere else.
• You’re against oil and gas, drive your SUV to Walmart, buy global brands, and fly to exotic locations. Please check what you’re doing before criticizing someone for working in petroleum.
• You work for oil and gas, you work for the sustainability of your company, and reduce their environmental impact. You will not exactly be green but you will do something about the impact of one of the biggest influences on our environment.
• You work for oil and gas, but do nothing 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.
• You just do it for the money. Your values don’t come into it. Your employer is giving you an opportunity to change something about its practices but you play along with the status quo. This is problematic in more ways than just working for oil and gas. very aware of your carbon footprint. However much an oil company does for sustainability, you will most likely be happier working somewhere else.

My personal opinion
Personally I find it immoral to destroy the environment for profit. Oil and gas are important and valuable resources that should not be burned up like we do at the moment. They’re used in the manufacturing of almost everything, and are even essential in a lot of medicines. We need them, but we need to change the way we produce them.

Integrity and loyalty to one’s values are an important part of morality. Working in oil and gas can be done in a moral way if you stay true to your values, work towards a more sustainable solution, and 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 effect change on a lot of different levels.

This essay first appeared in September 2013 in an extended format as a blog post:

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