In this series I will be exploring the dangerous lack of energy education in the United States, particularly about the indispensable benefits provided by fossil fuel energy—the subject of my book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. This week I focus on the lack of education within the fossil fuel industry. In future segments I will focus on mis-education in schools and the media.
The fossil fuel industry, as the leading and most misunderstood energy industry, has an obligation and self-interest in educating its employees and the public about energy, yet does a miserable job at it.
From kindergarten through high school through Ph.D. programs, all of us are taught that fossil fuel use is fundamentally immoral—a self-destructive addiction that’s destroying our planet, or at best a necessary evil that we have to get rid of as soon as possible, even if that (unfortunately) means a few more decades.
But where are we taught that there is a moral case for fossil fuels—an argument that, big picture, fossil fuel technology makes our planet a progressively better place to live, as its benefits to human life, including our environment, far, far outweigh its risks and side-effects? Where are we taught that fossil fuels are not a self-destructive addiction to get off of, but a healthy choice that billions of people need more of?
As a culture, almost nowhere.
This means that the fossil fuel industry has to pick up a lot of the slack—especially in teaching its employees. This is starting to happen, but not enough.
One question I ask CEOs is: “When you bring in new employees for training, what do you train them in?” The answers I get are usually safety, company culture, administrative procedures, and so on.
Then I ask: “What about training employees in the value of what they do—the full impact it has on human life?” Usually the answer is that they do none, or maybe an hour or two.
An hour or two.
So we have employees who have spent a lifetime with our culture telling them what they do is not valuable, is unsustainable, is destructive, and we are only giving them an hour or two on why the career we are asking them to devote their lives to may not be as immoral as they’ve been taught?
How does this affect employee motivation? It leads to many people, particularly among those who weren’t born in the industry, as thinking of their work as “just a job”—something they do because it’s the most money they can get.
Motivation to do an activity and do it well is closely tied to the meaning we associate with it. Can anyone doubt that if industry employees were taught the full meaning of their work and had it reinforced, just as members of the computer industry do, that the quality, quantity, and safety of their work would increase? This potential financial windfall alone should motivate the industry to do its educational job.
If the fossil fuel industry is essential to our prosperity and progress, then the industry’s failure to educate hurts all of us. It was one motivating factor for me to write a book that put together the full case, the moral case, for fossil fuels. When I see fossil fuel employees and companies who can’t defend what they do—or who try to position themselves as producers of wind and solar energy—I get very upset. If the very people producing the lifeblood of our civilization are doing an incompetent job defending it, then what’s the use of outsiders like me trying to defend an industry that acts guilty?
Let’s say 100 times a year an industry employee is asked: “What do you do for a living?” Whether that experience goes well or badly will depend on whether he knows the true value of what he does for a living—and whether that goes well for the hundreds of thousands of employees of the fossil fuel industry, and the tens of millions of people they have those conversations with, may determine the fate of all of us.
A few years ago, when debating the morality of oil at the University of Wisconsin, a student named Erin Connors, who had worked as an intern at an oil refinery, approached me afterward. Here’s how she later described the difficulties she and others in the industry had in explaining what they did for a living.
You’re at a party. You’ve just been introduced to someone and you’re making small talk and exchanging information. Where are you from? What brings you here? Work? What do you do for a living?
Easy questions, right? Not if you work in the oil industry—because you have every reason to expect a negative response when you answer them. You hesitate and shift your weight, preparing for the coming judgment. You answer, “I work at the refinery on the east side of town.” Your new acquaintance gives you a look that says: You work in the oil industry? You’re part of the problem. Not wanting to be impolite, he changes the topic rather than voice his disdain for how you have chosen to spend our life. The conversation moves on, but you’re left with a sour taste in your mouth. “Why is everyone always looking down on what I do—and why don’t I speak up and defend myself?”
Several years later, having studied the moral case for fossil fuels inside-out, Erin describes herself as an “oil champion”:
Now, when someone asks me about my future job, I proudly state that I am going to be working in the oil industry.
When someone makes a comment about how I’ve “sold my soul,” I know how to explain to them that I have, in fact, not “sold my soul” but I am actually very excited to be working in one of the most productive industries “improving my soul” and the planet.
Without the moral case for the oil industry, I would not have been able to do that. I wish I had this been given this information my first day at the refinery. I wish all my coworkers—from operators to other engineers to my supervisors—had this information. I hope that someday, it’s taught to every employee at every company.
So do I.