A Pragmatist Looks at: Oil and Gas Industry Hate

Is Shell still bad if it buys lots of windfarms? https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/new-energies/new-energies-media-releases/shell-partners-with-simply-blue-energy-to-develop-floating-wind-project.html

As promised, this is the next installment on trying to understand the sources of what I call “oil and gas industry hate”. There’s a relentless campaign in some quarters to publish stories about how bad the oil and gas industry is- it seems like several times a week. “Big oil” makes a nice target, but of course reasonable people might ask “what is small oil and what about those people and companies?” What about Teresa, the propane dealer, who has a fund for people who can’t pay their bills, and her workers? Or is it just extraction that produces the hate and moral judgment, and the rest of us can just use their products, and kick back in a hot tub of whirling moral rectitude?

Another thing that interests me about this topic is that we had/have a minor version of hate in some quarters (Oregon?)with the forest products industry. Similarly, the mining industry. But even the mining industry, including uranium, does not seem to release the 3Vs.. vituperous, vehement, vitriol in the public sphere that the oil and gas industry does. We could study this question by looking at the frequency of negative articles in various outlets.

Why is hate bad? You can perhaps argue that this isn’t hate, and that’s certainly worthy of discussion. Perhaps it’s really “righteous anger at a group.” Or something different.

I’ll start with the Buddha: “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Buddha was making the point that it’s not good for us as human beings in general.
Of course, I’m more of a pragmatist, so I’ll move on to this Rob Bell podcast (Rob is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but he made the point) idea that when someone angers you or you think they are wrong, use that energy to build something positive. Maybe talking about negative energy seems woo-woo to you, but if we’re going to go about moralizing and hating, then perhaps it’s time to reflect on wisdom of the ages, and what our ancestors had to say about moralizing and hating.

With all the words of all the university folks and media spinning by our heads about how simple and cheap the transition will be.. we can look out our windows and see combines and snowplows and transportation supply chains that depend on oil and gas right now. They won’t be carbon free until a) someone develops the technology and b) farmers and counties can afford to switch. So are we planning on hating on our neighbors.. oil and gas workers..until then? That will probably be fine for them, as “hated industry” folks tend to build psychic barriers to hate. But what are we doing to ourselves if we do? “What are you planning to do for the next 20 years, Vijay?” “Oh, I’m planning on spending my time castigating the oil and gas industry.” “But don’t you need to follow what they are doing? That’s a lot of work. All those companies.. all those metrics.” “No, I’m just going to follow a media outlet and they will tell me precisely how much anger and outrage I need to have.”

And to channel Rob Bell, what if we focused on sending positive energy, money and media coverage to those working on alternatives?

Ah, but Big Oil is bad so it’s OK to hate on them. But do institutions really possess their own morality? And do we have ground rules for when the past has tainted the institution sufficiently that we need to keep bringing it up? This Guardian article is a good example. It basically describes industry efforts to question the science behind climate change.. the article talks mostly about the 1980’s. There are two problems with this line of reasoning (they’re bad because they used to be bad and they haven’t changed), in my view.

The first is that they are blaming current executives, employees, investors, and other members of the corporate ecosystem for the sins of the past. Human beings have moral failings, and institutions are composed of human beings.. which.. change over time. If we’re in the business of institutional stone-casting, then, who among us? Certainly not the US Government, nor the Catholic Church, nor other industries (just think of alcohol, marijuana, sugar, media and the tech industry). None of these have clean records. The energies definitely have a scape-goaty feel to them.

The second is that it absolves everyone else of blame or “accountability”. Like, for example, the people who dreamed up cap and trade, a white collar solution (or neoliberal or whatever) for what I would frame as essentially an engineering problem (decarbonizing). And right after the meltdown of the financial industry? Of course, we should trust those people with the environment, they did so well with the economy- not. So perhaps other institutions bear their share of the blame for betting on a losing horse. Easier to predict than the climate in 30 years is the fact that the system was prone to gaming of various kinds including the known fact that forests burn up. Did people not know this..? And so we have articles like “forest offsets don’t actually help the environment” like this story in HCN. Thank goodness for federalism and for California, so that we can all watch their efforts to decarbonize and learn what paths work best. Or (some key) folks decided to ignore the Hartwell Paper. As a pragmatist, I always liked their language

accepting that decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.

I’m just a federal retiree with a WordPress account, but I’d like to see less stone-throwing, and more joint fact-finding and learning together about what works and doesn’t. I think we could do with less moralizing and more “relentless pragmatism.”

Many critiques involve oil and gas companies having well-paid executives.. well, every corporation does that, at least to some extent, including ones who run media outlets and internet apps and so forth. Not to speak of college athletic coaches, and celebrities.. that’s a much broader convo. As to influencing the government, the story is the same. I’m reminded of certain outdoor recreation interests (who depend on oil and gas products, of course) moving their trade show to Denver from Salt Lake City because of their views of the elected officials of Utah (they have since moved back). Personally, I think we should have special compassion for Utah because many people from a religious minority live there.. one that was persecuted by our own federal government. In all the coverage of the moves back and forth, though, I didn’t hear a critique of corporations trying to influence elected officials. So who is holding the bullhorn of rectitude and why do they point it at certain targets and not at others? That seems to be a key question.

When folks say “it’s morally wrong for you to do it, but it’s fine for me to do it”, we have a word for that- hypocrisy- which is also a moral judgment. But again, I’m a pragmatist so the problem with it for me is not morality. It’s simply that when you do it so obviously, people don’t trust you. Because as my wise forest economist friend once told me “you need to watch what people do, not what they say.” Lack of trust is the natural consequence of hypocrisy and lack of trust is ultimately a poison to our democracy. IMHO.

8 thoughts on “A Pragmatist Looks at: Oil and Gas Industry Hate”

  1. I can’t help but think this same “hatred” is directed at the timber industry. It turns out the Northwest Forest Plan wasn’t about saving old growth or the spotted owl. It was about stopping logging on federal lands. That same mindset continues today. It is obvious when the environmental organizations sue to stop salvage logging but say nothing about the lost of our forests to fire. Letting wildfires burn makes about as much sense to me as setting oil wells on fire.

    • Bob, I don’t know, perhaps it’s a variant of the same scape-industry thing. Certainly the “using is fine but producing is bad” view is there; as is a relative lack of interest in specific practices, but more “get them outta here.”

  2. Sharon, I hate to start this with a personal comment, but in my experience people who call themselves pragmatists are generally people who just believe their world view is balanced and correct while the world views of others with different opinions are not. What I have witnessed in my short time of reading and sometimes participating in this forum is a belief that environmental activists are bad and industry is honest and good. As someone who worked 41 years with the Forest Service, I am used to hearing this. It was a constant theme in project meetings. “We know what is best and environmentalists are nasty, hate-mongering obstructionists.”

    I don’t believe the media is necessarily hateful when they report on past oil and gas industry efforts to discredit the science behind climate change. And I think it is showing a bias when it is not acknowledged that the industry continues to do this in a variety of ways as well as the non-stop efforts to minimize environmental regulations designed to minimize unnecessary additions of GHGs and impacts to the surrounding natural and human environment. This article is one of many on the topic of the millions of dollars the oil and gas industry spends on lobbying https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2019/03/25/oil-and-gas-giants-spend-millions-lobbying-to-block-climate-change-policies-infographic/?sh=7cc3dcf77c4f

    In a sense, one could argue that the oil and gas industry has been very pragmatic in their strategizing for the goal of maintaining the status quo of keeping humans addicted to fossil fuels. In another sense, one could argue that environmental advocates are also being pragmatic in their strategy of how to push public opinion against the oil and gas industry in an effort to accelerate efforts to decarbonize our energy use. Inciting emotion in individuals can be extremely effective at motivating people to become politically active. We have seen this kind of strategy work successfully with the Republican Party’s anti everything the Democrats want to get done strategy even when they want it too.

    Per your comments about big oil vs “small oil”… regional news is sometimes good at picking up the stories of issues surrounding operations by small companies. I have a lifelong friend who worked in the natural gas pipeline business. He finished his career at the tender age of 48 (he was paid well) as someone who led mega gas pipeline projects. One of his observations was that it was the small operators who cut corners and often ran into problems with leaks and/or abandonment of wells and pipelines. He said they had an outsized impact on the natural and human environment.

    Lastly, I haven’t read anywhere where people are saying transitioning to a carbon-free energy society is easy. What I have read is that the oil and gas industry (yes, there are real people behind this category) has long history of and continues trying to keep their industry running full bore.

    It seems that either you and I read different things or we read the same things differently. That’s okay, that diversity of thinking is generally a good thing. I just hope you understand that when it comes to climate change, all sides are doing their version of moralizing, not just those seeking a carbon-free future.

  3. Here’s a pragmatic look at how federal land policies affect oil and gas drilling at this point in time: an article that is not about that, but says, “Discipline continues to dominate the industry. Shareholders and lenders continue to demand a return on capital, and until it becomes unavoidably obvious that high energy prices will sustain, there will be no exploration spending.”

    • Yup. If you signal (government) oil and gas has no future, then folks will not want to invest in additional production. That is quite pragmatic on their part.

      • The point of the article is that they respond mostly to price signals, not public lands availability. (Reducing supply should actually increase the price signal, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.)


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