Given the impact of fossil fuels on climate change; Is it wrong for graduate engineers to go into the Oil and Gas Industry?

The global temperature has been steadily rising since the introduction of fossil fuels during the industrial revolution (see below). Nine of the ten warmest years on the planet occurred after the year 2000. With changes in our weather patterns, sea levels and agriculture, there’s no disputing that increasing global temperature is a serious threat to life as we know it. There is a strong correlation between carbon emissions and the increase in temperature; the burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Blog image temp graph

NASA/GISS global land-ocean temperature index and the CDIAC global carbon project

As graduating engineers, we are the best positioned people to solve the world’s greatest problems in the future. Given this responsibility, can we ethically support and work for companies in the Oil and Gas industry knowing that their aim of increasing the use of fossil fuels will have a serious effect on the planet?

Yes, we can:

As a graduate engineer, your aim will be to build the necessary experience and skills in order to become a leader of the future. As a leader in the Oil and Gas industry, you will have the reputation within the field to change company policy and even lobby governments on environmental policies. This was seen in February when BP chief Bob Dudley called on governments to adopt carbon pricing. This kind of influence on the industry could not possibly be possessed by somebody who is on the outside of the industry therefore the best possibility of real change is from within.

If all graduate engineers were to boycott the Oil and Gas industry then these companies would not be able to survive. In the UK alone this means 450,000 jobs and £27 billion in GDP would be lost. In a world where the reduction of waste is crucial to its environmental sustainability would it not be better to reuse these resources through structured progressive change?

For all the negatives that come from the Oil and Gas industry, it is easy to gloss over some of the beneficial impacts it can have on society. Many international companies turnover more than small-to-medium economies; they can provide jobs and infrastructure increasing standards of living and reducing poverty. The Moroccan National Electrification Office began a national rural electrification programme in 1994. In 2002, three unnamed leading Oil and Gas firms collaborated to provide funding and expertise. Without this investment, the project would have been scrapped. Projects such as this are continuously being implemented without making the news, painting the industry in a bad light.

Furthermore, in the case of a graduate source from Uganda, “I have to say it wouldn’t much affect my decision to either work for the company or not (because) I think the company would come with the typical characteristics of an industry such as the clearing away of some vegetation…(removal of) dangerous pollutant gases… that are all actively important in our climate change”. This viewpoint suggests the responsibility of climate change is with the company’s ethics whilst his initial concerns lie with their immediate dependents. Companies are in a better financial and moral position to benefit a society than economies with “poor governance and high corruption” that may take advantage of the situation.

If the problem is considered from a hedonistic standpoint then there is moral justification for entering the industry. The Oil and Gas industry is one of the most challenging and well remunerated career paths for a graduate engineer, leading to a pleasurable standard of living. If the lawmakers of the state do not consider the industry harmful enough to prevent it then why should a graduate pass up an opportunity that someone else will ultimately take?

No, we can’t:

By entering the Oil and Gas industry, you are contributing to the growth and sustained running of one of the most environmentally damaging lines of work in the world. There have been multiple examples in recent history of Oil and Gas companies experiencing incidents which had global consequences. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 spilled approximately 4.9 million barrels (780,000m3) and caused phenomenal damage to the marine and bird life. In September 2014, it was ruled by a U.S. judge that BP was primarily responsible for the spill due to gross negligence and reckless conduct.

As traditional sources “dry up”, the industry is also resorting to more dangerous methods of resource extraction – namely fracking. Fracking is a process in which high pressure water is pumped deep underground to break up rocks and release shale gas. The fracturing fluid used is toxic, non-biodegradable and  50-70% is left underground. Numerous reports link these facts to poisoned wells of drinking water in nearby areas.

The damaging nature of obtaining oil and gas coupled with the contribution to global climate change by the industry (shown above) fundamentally go against the freedom principle – individuals are free to pursue pleasure as long as they do not cause suffering to others by doing so. The Oil and Gas industry is responsible for the immediate suffering of victims of industrial accidents and the suffering of future generations through global climate change. As a graduate engineer, the decision to seek the financial and professional benefits of the Oil and Gas industry is morally wrong as you would be contributing to this suffering.

You could say that this suffering is a necessary sacrifice for the benefit of the many. From a utilitarian point of view, whichever course of action causes the greatest happiness is the morally correct choice. The immediate gains from oil and gas are: the financial benefit to stakeholders and employees and the availability of energy to all who use fossil fuels. The benefit is great but the suffering of the victims of industrial accidents and all those people who will be displaced, go hungry, and lose their lives due to global warming is arguably much greater as the effects will last for generations. This makes it morally incorrect to support as an employee.

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16 thoughts on “Given the impact of fossil fuels on climate change; Is it wrong for graduate engineers to go into the Oil and Gas Industry?

  1. Wow, an extremely well worded argument! You managed to touch on some points that wouldn’t even have occurred to me, such as the positive impact influential people within the industry can have on environmental policy, as well as your takes on the ethical frameworks around each decision.

    However, I would like to make the point that you do not have to be within the industry to have a significant impact. I would agree that graduates who do follow a career path in oil and gas would be in a stronger position to make changes within the industry, however many influential powers including political, social and other-industry based figures have made an important stance against fossil fuels, more so than those within the industry.

    That being said, reading this article actually made me reconsider my point on entering the oil and gas industry. I personally believed that this industry was just not for me due to the ethical issues surrounding it, but on the other hand I do believe that everyone’s personal happiness and well-being is within their own hands, and if a path for this is provided better by the oil and gas industry through better graduate opportunities then maybe it isn’t so bad to want to pursue a successful career path. I definitely agree that a stand must be made towards improving climate change and reducing our generations dependence on the oil and gas industry for energy needs, but the most significant stand against this would be made by governments and bodies with legislative power.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the input Selvi!

      Spot on with the political aspect, we’ll tackle that head on in our ‘rebuttal’. I’m so bummed out that someone has swung towards Oil and Gas! It’s great that the article had such a genuine effect, but think of the EMISSIONS!!!!

      Cheers again

      Like

  2. Although well worded, I’ve yet to be convinced that either argument is correct. While the fact the oil industry is very lucrative and pays well, it does not prevent the ethical issues from being present. While this is an extreme example, the recent corruption in panama shows that while something can be legal it should not be immune to ethical implications. Abusing a finite resource is by it’s very definition unsustainable, and eventually something will give.

    On the other hand, technology cannot “pull a U turn” overnight. Most nations on earth are driven by the combusition engine, and if using oil is suddenly outlawed there is no way civilisation can just move onto the next rung of the technological ladder without massive amounts of strife. While it is the ethical responsibiltiy of society to move on from a destructive, finite resource it is not feasible to suggest we go cold turkey.

    Good article, well written. I’m leaning towards to slowing the use of oil and gas to move onto bigger and better things. Also I’m a dirty hippy who actually likes living on this planet when it isn’t underwater.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the input James!

      Our against argument should have covered the reliance on oil and gas more evenly, thanks for highlighting that. The benefits are huge and too big to ignore. However, the article didn’t suggest a “U-turn” or “going cold turkey” at all. Our against argument simply suggests that we individually act as if oil and gas is unethical by avoiding it as a career path.

      I also really appreciate you pointing out “Legality vs Morality” that is definitely going to feature in our ‘rebuttal’.

      Cheers again

      Like

  3. A really well set out argument on both sides. Having worked within an oil company I was struck by the care they took in reporting any spills (even very minor ones) and many of the people working in the business cared about the short terms effect on the environment. On the other hand I think the culture of the industry is one of their major hindrances – for too long the high rewards of oil has driven a culture of excessive pay, excessive exploration and little long term planning esspecially in terms of funding for renewable energy. I totally agree that the benefits of the oil industry in terms of personal happiness and the stability it offers is a key driver into the business but even now that stability is no longer there – especially in the UK and I think that will be one of the key aspects driving young graduates away from the industry.
    Thanks for the interesting read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the input Rachel!

      We hadn’t even thought of corporate culture, it has such a major effect on how an industry behaves. Thanks for bringing that up, it will appear in our ‘rebuttal’ for sure.

      Having worked in the Oil and Gas industry before, would you go into that field again having seen how the company you worked for approached the ethical implications of their work?

      Cheers again

      Like

  4. This view might have slight bias since I am on a placement year in the evil Oil and Gas industry, but your first argument ‘for’ entering the industry as a graduate is without a doubt the strongest in my opinion and so it’s good you’re leading with your best foot forward. Respected industry figures will hold more sway amongst their peers in industry and have the most obvious opportunity to steer it in the right direction – reducing carbon emissions and weaning us all off fossil fuels. These actions will inevitably happen on a long timeline, possibly about the time that graduates our age will be reaching the pinnacles of our careers and be in positions to influence change. I feel I can still class myself as an environmentalist (albeit not a very good one!) because of that fact.

    Equally though, the utilitarian view wasn’t one I’d considered. I thought the benefits of providing energy, transport and household goods to millions of people is the course of action creating most happiness, but on reflection the damage we are doing to billions more, as a direct result of the industry’s actions, means this certainly isn’t the case. Fracking too is an unknown quantity and something we’ve definitely got to be wary of in the next few decades.

    This is definitely a thought provoking article and given me a bit to think about, which is always a positive thing!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks Will, really appreciate comments from someone within the industry!!

    From your experience do you think your environmentalist opinion is one held by many of your peers?

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  6. As several legal analysts have pointedout, the implications of the company’s First Amendment claims are profound. As a practical matter, nearly all corporate compliance in 2016 involves writing and using software. Not all software is as sophisticated as the code Apple would have to write in the San Bernardino case; just setting up formulas in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet counts as coding too. So if the government makes a company add up lines on a spreadsheet to comply with financial transparency requirements it dislikes, does Apple believe that would be unconstitutional compelled speech too?

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  7. The idea of being able to bring change from within may be flawed. The company will promote those who are in line with their values and goals. If you were planning to work your way up and then reveal your environmental credentials you would still need to justify decisions to your boss / colleagues / those who work for you. By that time there is a good chance the culture of the company would have ‘got to you’.

    Perhaps what we need is more technically minded people in government who would drive change and properly understand the implications of decisions. So maybe oil and gas industry for 5 years, renewables industry for 5 years, then run for office?!

    It also occurs to me that this is a bit like the charity argument: lots of people want to work for charities so the best thing a skilled person can do is earn as much as possible in another profession and give all of the extra to charity; the role within the charity can be filled by someone else who wouldn’t be able to earn as much elsewhere. so basically do what you want job-wise but use all your spare money/knowledge/time to devote to the various efforts to move our energy system towards a more sustainable future e.g. There are lots of voluntary-run community energy organisations out there that need skilled volunteers and they are making a bigger difference than you might think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Clare,

      I agree. From what the culture sounds like, I’m not sure anyone could maintain a green viewpoint through a barrage of opposing views.

      Politics is definitely where you need to be if you want real change, but not all of us are cut out for politics. I’m all for incentives to get smart, non-career politician technocrats into positions where they can make that change though.

      This is great, I hadn’t come across the charity argument before. It’s almost as if you can “ethically offset” your business in the Oil and Gas industry by providing charitable donations to green causes. Though I wonder if the culture might even prevent you from doing this eventually. Do you think this should be mandatory on a company level? If car companies have to limit the emissions of their fleet, O+G should definitely have to invest a certain proportion of their growth into renewables.

      Thanks for the input, it all goes towards a coursework submission where we revise our position based on reader’s comments. This has been really helpful 🙂

      Like

  8. Hugh as you know I have worked for ever in this industry and indeed it has become far more aware of the impact of the use of hydro carbons . Note that it is in fact the ultimate users that really cause emissions and not the o/g industry per se. There are of course accidents and spills which do sadly happen and we strive to avoid this. The mind set in oil and gas is totally risk averse, huge effort is spent in making production safe and clean . Oil and gas industry is aware of its place in the world as the bad guys and try hard to support activities that help the environment , check out shell earth watch etc . It’s good that big industry is reminded of its social responsibility
    To ensure that this continues the industry needs bright committed people the balance of safe sensible production can be maintained if we have people who supported by committed management and global rule sets can

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks for the input, it’s great to have your valuable perspective on this.

      I had a similar discussion on another blog along the lines of “Is it ethical to supply a demand if the demand is damaging in some way?” It’s a tough cookie as demand inevitably begets supply. “If I don’t do it, someone else will”. I can’t really come down on whether this completely absolves the supplier.

      It’s great that the social pressures on o/g are having an effect. In another comment I discussed that maybe companies can “ethically offset” their impact by contributing to renewables. It’s clear shell and o/g as a whole are switched on about this.

      Your final point really struck home for me. Starving the industry of talented, environmentally engaged engineers only increases the risk of dangerous spills and slows ongoing change towards sustainability within the industry. It’s the exact opposite of a solution.

      Thanks again,

      Hugh

      Like

  9. This is posted for a friend who now works in oil and gas- I sent her a link ‘yes we can. there are many ways of utilising co2 emitted in the oil and gas industry – co2 injection, CCS, etc. Also, i worked on quantifying, reducing and mitigating co2 produced in a highly intensive industry (downstream). People are working on ways of making these industries greener, while we are still using them. Also, this writer has a thing against bp.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Naz,

      Thanks for the comment. Who doesn’t have a thing against BP?

      I’m 50/50 on these endeavours. On the one hand, anything we can do to lessen the impact of retrieving the fuel we are currently dependent on, the better. On the other hand, CCS and other downstream methods will never cancel out the CO2 produced by fossil fuels. Arguably, if the money spent on these was invested in solar farms, wind turbines and tidal installations it would have a bigger long term net effect on green house gasses.

      My opinion is that these downstream processes often serve as a marketing strategy for these companies, not a real long term solution.

      Thanks again,

      Hugh

      Like

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