Is the Big Bad Wolf really that bad?
May 8, 2007 12:09 AM   Subscribe

Tell me about the oil industry. It's one of the places I could possibly work upon graduation. Is it as evil as it is sometimes made to look?

I study geology at a university in Australia. I graduate at the end of the year and will probably do a year of honours, then head out into the wider world. There are plenty of jobs around in government organisations, and they're desperate for people in the minerals industry, but another possible direction is the oil industry.

My initial reaction to that is a firm 'no'. I don't want to work there, it's bad. The oil industry just has a big rubber-stamped EVIL sign in my head.

So how accurate is that? I've read in places that they spend millions delaying the introduction of alternative energies, that they ruthlessly decimate natural wildernesses and preserves, that they care for nothing but profit. I wouldn't want to work for an organisation like that.

I guess the question is this: how unethical is the oil industry? Personal experiences from people who work in the industry would be great, but other more general opinions are welcome too. Thanks, all.
posted by twirlypen to Work & Money (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yergin's "The Prize" is a industry-insider written summary worth reading for its scope, even if it is not at all an honest exposé.

While I personally find the entire idea of corporations selling me my own [natural resource] assets philosophically abhorrent, if I were you I'd jump at the chance to get into the industry.

The modern-day oil industry suffers under much tighter environmentalist oversight than it did in the past, so the old horror stories no longer have currency.

I can't think of any company that is truly "ethical" . . . but it never hurts to see for yourself how the world really operates, as long as you're making buttloads of money for this education.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:01 AM on May 8, 2007

I worked in the gulf of mexico on seismic ships and a few rigs. Though I my job wasn't exactly in the oil industry, (I was a marine mammal observer), I had to work work and live with people working at all levels of the industry every day. Even though it is a very corporate environment, I found that most people I worked with were pretty good guys, better than your average cooperate suit. Many of the people espiecially the higher ups had travelled all over the world for their jobs, probably not with too much local contact though. The Americans envolved tended to be from Texas or Lousiana and with them there was a "good old boy" attitude that I found annoying. The overseas workers, who came from all over the world, were much more interesting and easy to get along with for someone who wasn't from the american south.

All in all, it is a not the worst industy, depending on your job you will probably get to work outside and travel to interesting places. If you are going for a corporate position anyway, I wouldn't rule it out.
posted by afu at 3:24 AM on May 8, 2007

If you could get a job inspecting and enforcing your oil company's compliance with environmental and safety standards -- and push it to adhere to the spirit of the law, not simply the letter, regardless of the cost -- you would be anti-evil. Good, in fact. It's much easier to prevent a company from doing something bad when there's someone inside looking out for the good.

If you take this route, keep a big shiny whistle on a chain (a breakaway chain if you work near equipment) around your neck.
posted by pracowity at 3:41 AM on May 8, 2007

I think the nugget behind one's fear/hatred of oil companies is both their size and their necessity: from the plastic keys I'm typing with to the gas in my car to the take-out box from the Italian place around the corner, oil companies aren't just out there, but they're in our lives every hour of every day.

The other issue is that, I think, there has been a long history of oil companies lobbying for things like road construction getting a larger chunk of a country's transport budget than, say, a rail system or better airport infrastructure, and that they've been quite successful with that, especially in places like the urban and suburban developed world. The knock-on effects of the "making-essential" of the automobile have been pretty well documented - even if they aren't all directly related to oil companies themselves - and while they aren't all positive or negative, there's certainly a lot for oil companies to answer for in the caring-for-the-earth department.

What about working for, say, a government oil or minerals ministry? You'd be using your skills to regulate an industry which you have misgivings about, especially if you were working in an environment of corporate honesty and government accountability. The flip side of that would be, say, working in a dictator-ruled microstate perched between some of the world's most dangerous places, as described herein.
posted by mdonley at 4:25 AM on May 8, 2007

My brother started out in dog houses doing the seismic work. He's raised a family while living and working in the US, Europe and the Middle East. Oh, and he's done very well given that geophysics is something he essentially 'fell' into.

He's ethical and I'd say that he feels the oil company he works for is as well.

I think the oil companies recognised some time ago that their responsibilities have changed and that a sustainable (yet very profitable) model is essential.
posted by michswiss at 4:47 AM on May 8, 2007

Someone I know went from being a government econ consultant to working for BP - the European companies (BP and Shell) and often considered less evil, and there's at least a lot of talk about all the changes being made for environmental reasons, etc. But, one couldn't help noticing his salary also quintupled.

I second reading The Prize if you haven't already for a decent lay of the land.
posted by mdn at 6:00 AM on May 8, 2007

that they care for nothing but profit.

All private industries are like this, that's the point of them. The oil industry has just had more opportunity than most (selling a natural resource helps with that).
posted by crabintheocean at 6:47 AM on May 8, 2007

I worked for a time in the oil business on the exploration side and I've worked for defense contractors and a slew of other businesses over the course of my career so I consider myself something of an expert in "evil" businesses. I think it is folly to ascribe "evil" or "good" to a corporation's intent. In pretty much every company I've worked for, their overwhelming motivation has been to maximize their profit margins. The side effect of this is sometimes what we label as "evil," but it is really not. If the side-effect of their profit-seeking behavior has results that we dislike, we label it as evil. In general, every company is primarily composed of people who want to go about their lives in as ethical a fashion as they can. When they have choices, they tend to pick the one that does the least damage.

If the laws of our country punish environmental damage, the oil companies will avoid it to the best of their ability. In third world countries with limited regulation, they will do as little as they can.

In terms of the interactions with bosses, employees and coworkers, I'd say that the oil business is as ethical as anywhere I've worked. Healthy companies with good profits usually breed good relationships between staff members. It is a field dominated by Texas and Texans, which has good and bad elements. I like Texans, but they do tend to be very direct and devoid of BS, which turns some people off.

I doubt seriously that the minerals business is better in terms of their environmental record. I think there is a degree to which the oil business understands that PR is a tangible asset and I think that they seek to represent themselves in way that maximizes their public reputation. They spend considerable resources to minimize the impact of oil spills because they have tremendous cost to them. They have spent a lot in R&D on containment technology and in avoiding them in the first place.

The idea that they are snapping up patents to suppress alternative energy technologies seems absurd to me. They want to hold patents so that they can profit from whatever is next.
posted by Lame_username at 7:02 AM on May 8, 2007

I can't believe that the oil companies are more "evil" or unethical than other large influential organization affecting large numbers of people and handle large amounts of money. I'm deliberately saying "organizations," by the way, rather than "corporations." Government agencies are also known to do "evil" or "unethical" things at times.

I have a sense that although the individuals themselves who work in these enterprises are usually ethical, organizations and bureuacracies often operate to create unintended consequences.

This is aside from the question of whether organizational leaders make unethical decisions, of course, whether it's the BP managers who neglected safety at Texas City, the Enron managers who defrauded employees and investors, the tobacco company executives who lied to the public and government, or the many government leaders who [insert transgressions here].
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:30 AM on May 8, 2007

I worked for a year at Schlumberger-Doll Research in Connecticut. A fantastic office with a population of 90% geologists, and the rest administrative staff (and support computerists like me). The ethic in the office was one of exploration and scientific enquiry. I recall having lunch-long conversations about the nature of oil reserves and the modern political climate of emerging nations (everyone there was/is terrified of the looming consumption demand of a nation like China).

The project on which I was working was an attempt to assist companies in thoroughly exploring a pocket of oil under the ground through computer visualization. At no time were we given the task of "maximizing profits" -- the main concern was the potential dwindling supply of easily accessed drilling locations.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:05 AM on May 8, 2007

I come from several generations of oilpatch workers, and when I was younger, I was, at various times, a pipeline welder, roustabout, and landman. I'm from Texas, too. Y'all can debate the ethics of the business, but here's why I'll never get back into it-- it has, to my observation, by far the most severe economic swings of any business I've seen, and when things go south, people lose their jobs. For good. Part of the reason that wages and salaries are so good right now is that thousands of people did like me, got out of it for good, and found something else to do with our lives.

And furthermore, we all got in at a time when the conventional wisdom was that it would be a very stable industry-- people would always need oil, geopolitics would keep the price high, and so forth. Crude went from $50/barrel to around $8, I think. If you think history can't repeat itself, you're not paying attention. If you think things are different now...well, back then, so did we.

I realize you asked about ethics, but I think it's folly to ask any corporation to be ethical. Corporations, by definition, have no conscience. They may say they have one, they may act like they have one, but they exist to maximize profit. We have laws to keep them in place. Whether they're enforced is another question.

The fact that you're using ethics as a means for choosing a field of work tells me that you'd probably be miserable working for an oil company.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2007

If you could get a job inspecting and enforcing your oil company's compliance with environmental and safety standards...

I held this job both as a consultant and as an oil company employee for about 10 years, and I can say that despite the lip service given to environmental compliance, it is nowhere near the top of the priority list. Particularly when I working for a MAJOR oil company - at the refinery itself - I was often convinced that the compliance process was deliberately hampered by the management. At the end of the day, the process units are rewarded for meeting production goals, not environmental ones. As long as the refinery lawyers were able to pull out reams of data and cry, "but look at everything we're doing!" to the regulatory agencies, well... I think that was the real need they were trying to meet.

I believe you can be ethical AND turn a profit - I think they could have done both, and I still do. And I do think some companies (BP stands out) are more committed to that level of effort. Most are not. Ultimately the sour taste my experiences left (not to mention the many office window views of equipment that could malfunction and kill everyone onsite) caused me to leave the industry. Even if the oil companies were all in perfect environmental compliance, I would still rather spend my time and effort on renewable energy sources. That is most ethical to me personally.
posted by FuzzyVerde at 10:06 AM on May 8, 2007

Excellent points made by all. I'm a petroleum engineer with 25 years, and so I believe that I some modest insight into the industry.

I disagree with missouri_lawyer one one minor point though. Using the rationale presented, would an ethical person be a lawyer? Tongue in cheek, but the point is made. (However, I'm certain that I am taking the point out of context). The only way to improve any industry "ethically challenged" business is to bring ethical people into it. For example, I thought that I was environmentally and socially ethical when I joined up for the patch.

One person ascribed to the unbelievable swings from good economic times to bad. YES. And as missouri_lawyer said, if you think history can't repeat itself, you are not paying attention. I have gone through four separate downturns, and it is painful every time. It was "never gonna happen". (And yes, geologists get skidded as well, which seems insane to me). In my grad. class, at our five (or so) year reunion, everyone that graduated in 84/85/86 had been laid off at some point in their short careers. Sobering statistic.

When the price of oil is good, the oil companies simply must get the oil out of the ground, and as a result there are certain niceties that can be overrun. Furthermore, most wells tend to be in a remote location, so sometimes the environment is treated less well than it deserves. Field people are independant, and fiercely proud of the difficult job that they do. This also tends to make them appear like rednecks to outsiders.

What is important for you is to determine if your branding of the oil patch as "evil" is legitimate, or is the result of the "hollywood green" thinking. The oil patch is getting greener, but there is a long way to go yet. Having said that, there is an increased awareness of the environment by all stakeholders, and as such, the scorched earth syndrome is not always as presented. But, we do have work to do.

The wealth generated by oil does cause significant hardship to local populations because of mismanagement of funds or promises. However, look at Mexico and the tourism industry by Cancun. There are parallels to be drawn between the hotel row along the Mayan Riviera and Nigeria. The local populace suffers with poor pay, vast societal changes, and the international corporations pay large sums of money as taxes to the government for access to the geological feature (beach / oil). Substitute mining in the above if you prefer. Its not the company or the business that is evil, it is the governments neglect for its own resources and people.

In my experience, most resource people are just like you and I. We like hiking, the mountains, the beach, critters, and the outdoors, which is why we are working in this environment. Like the statistical norm, we are generally honest, and we put in a hard days work, and it is a full day - just like everyone else. Its a job, not a life. What you do for your life does not define the type of person you are.

I applaud you for having the courage to ask the question. Maybe more graduates of programs could do the same - imagine if mechanical engineering graduates were concerned about the automobile industry's safety record for example.

Email if I haven't addressed your concerns to your satisfaction.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 12:55 PM on May 8, 2007


I am a little miffed at your dig at mechanical engineering graduates :). Automobile safety has vastly improved over the years, while working for masters which demand lower development and manufacturing costs to meet market demands. Everybody wants the safest car. Very few want to pay for it.

OP: You are in the business of exploiting natural resources, evil or not, we could not live as we do without this. In developed nations, environmental regulations keep things under tight control, but yes, there are still problems in less loosely regulated areas. Keep in mind though that environmental evils are not usually one big corporation doing one big bad thing, but an accumulation of bad decisions by many corporations and individuals in an area which, on their own, would seem insignificant, but when added up over time, turn into a larger problem. I have worked with many geologists in the minerals industry, some have come from oil when work was lacking, but all were enthusiastic, ethical, and generally non-evil!
posted by defcom1 at 1:49 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. You've given me lots to think about, I appreciate it.
posted by twirlypen at 3:33 PM on May 8, 2007


If I miffed, it was not my intent. My apologies.

I was not slamming the work that ME's do, rather I was attempting to draw a parallel between the poster's ethical question and something for more common ground. My purpose in singling out the automobile industry, was that the implications of unethical behaviour could have significantly greater consequences on people than being a geologist in the oil bidness.

For example, if the poster were a mechanical engineering graduate, and thought that he might like the automobile industry, but felt that the automobile's safety record were not what he/she was comfortable with, he might be inclined to be asking the same question and we would probably be telling him exactly what you and others have said.

Bad wording on my part - sometimes I write when I should be thinking, and vice versa.

Again, apologies are mine.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 4:13 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

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