The Fossil Fuel Industry: Not as bad as its reputation

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The fossil fuel industry has long been the focus of much dislike. The general argument posits that, not only seeking to prolong our dependence on fossil fuels, the fossil fuel industry is also especially negligent of human rights. However, I shall conjecture that this is not an entirely correct view of the matter.

Firstly, on a completely a priori basis, the fossil fuel industry is simply an industry like any other: it is hardly alone in seeking to further its own economic interests. An industry, moreover, is organised economic activity connected to a particular product, not a political system. The companies connected to the industry are, of course, responsible for making sure the conditions of their employees are acceptable, and that their procedures are in accordance with human rights. For the majority of the actors in the fossil fuel industry, this is reflected in their policies. Statoil, the world’s biggest offshore oil and gas company, holds that they are committed to:

• ‘Making decisions based on how they affect our interests and the interests of the societies around us
• Ensuring transparency, anti-corruption, and respect for human rights and labour standards
• Generating positive spin-offs from our core activities to help meet the aspirations of the societies in which we operate’

Moreover, in their Ethics Code of Conduct, they state that Statoil “will maintain an open dialogue on ethical issues, internally and externally.” Granted, Statoil is only one company, but it is not the only one to profess such ideals: BP, Shell and, Total are examples of other companies that are committed to human rights.

Furthermore, one effect of the industry has been exponential economic growth in fossil fuel rich countries. A comparison of graphs, detailing oil prices and GDP in relevant states, such as Norway and Quatar, clearly demonstrates a connection. Also, fossil fuels are sold all over the world at competitive prices, thus providing the opportunity to get people in the developing world out of extreme poverty.

As concerns the environmental issues associated with the combustion and consumption of fossil fuels, it is obvious that these matters present problems for the industry. On the one hand, they benefit economically from our continued use; whilst on the other hand, they are subject to increased external pressure to improve their environmental profile.

According to James Frithjof Skouverøe, a former executive in the oil industry, there has been a shift towards more environmentally friendly solutions, insofar as “the industry has had to do so to meet regulations and to the extent it is economic, in general and directed by taxation of emissions etc. In my opinion, the industry will only respond to regulations, the flip side of this is that the industry will, if left to its own initiatives, do very little to develop environmentally friendly solutions that have no positive effect on the economic return on investment for the industry.”

He goes on to say that the industry “has been established world-wide over more than 100 years and is resourceful in many aspects. It has some of the best brains, capable management and the most developed organisations.”

One of the implications of this is that the industry is capable of finding ways to decrease their negative impact on the climate. Carbon sequestration is only one example of such a solution, and has already been in use since 1996, on Statoil’s Sleipner in the North Sea. A further example is underground coal gasification, which is being put in effect in the Firth of Forth.

Taking all of this into account, then, is it really reasonable to continue to propagate the belief that the fossil fuel industry is so bad?

Katarina Birkedal


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