‘Pay attention, keep your balance, do what’s right’

Ethics Woes Sometimes Overlooked

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Lynn Hughes
Lynn Hughes

Remember when Mom was always on your case, constantly harping about honesty being the best policy, doing good unto others, doing the right thing?

Here’s hoping you took her wise counsel to heart.

It could be key to your success in today’s often unsavory business world – an environment where both personal and corporate misdeeds have spun out of control in many instances, harming numerous innocent people.

It is timely indeed that ethics is becoming an increasingly popular presentation topic at professional meetings, including those in the earth sciences community.

Over the past year, various AAPG-affiliated societies had the opportunity to hear U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes drill down into the ethics milieu during his appearances as the Distinguished Lecturer-Ethics for AAPG.

“The goal with this ethics talk is not to convert crooks,” said Hughes, a lawyer who has been a federal judge for more than two decades. “It’s to help already honest people recognize dangers and help them be strong when they need to be.

“The audiences have been interested and asked good questions,” he said. “And the year has been very good for me because it’s important for people like me to relate and meet non-lawyers, non-judges – this helps my perspective.

“The questions geologists ask are different than lawyers and law students have,” Hughes noted. “That gives me a better understanding of how the scientific citizenry and others handle ethics problems.”

Finding a Balance

Hughes commented on the issue of trust, first outlining the three forms of capital:

  • Tangible assets, e.g., oil and machinery.
  • Intangible attributes of people, e.g., knowledge and skills – these are human capital.
  • Intangible culture, e.g., institutions, practices, relationships – these are social capital.

“The predominant component of social capital is, quite simply, trust,” Hughes emphasized. “The value of the first two types depends entirely on the third.”

He cautioned that you can’t recruit or retain good workers if your operation has a reputation for dishonesty. The workers recognize that if you lie to the company’s owners, you will lie to them.

“Knowledge – and they will know – of cheating at the top engenders either alienation or emulation at the bottom,” Hughes said. “Both kill success.”

Oftentimes, many ethical problems are overlooked. After all, people are busy, life tends to be confusing and problems often arise because people aren’t presented with an isolated, precise, antiseptic problem.

“Real people are confronted by moral questions buried in the confusion of context,” Hughes said. “People are immersed in a fog of interest, uncertainty and conflict – no man is an island – and these are some of the things that cast shadows on judgment.

“Lying has costs,” he noted. “If discovered it can cost you your job, and worse, it can cost you your reputation, precluding another job.

“On the other hand, telling the truth has costs, and these cloud your judgment,” Hughes said. “Having worked in a firm for 25 years – having paid (your) dues in time, unattractive assignments and cranky bosses – is an investment. People are reluctant to jeopardize that capital by not ‘going along’ with the team.

“People tend to overestimate truth’s jeopardy from within and to underestimate deception’s jeopardy from without,” Hughes said. “The children need feeding, the mortgage must be paid and that seems more immediate than the risk of an SEC summons – the choice is between difficulty and disgrace.”

Hughes stated if he could condense a 30-minute ethics discussion into a billboard, it would say, “Pay attention, keep your balance, do what’s right”.

Seeking Integrity

So, you ask, how do geologists and other geoscientists measure up in the ethical sense?

“From my conversations,” Hughes said, “my sense is geologists are ethical both in their scientific integrity and their personal integrity.”

He noted the fairly recent reserves scandals stemmed largely from management’s bureaucratic perversion of the geology rather than “wicked” engineers.

“You can do excellent science and math, but what people do with it may be different from what you thought it would show,” Hughes said.

When queried about the general public’s perception of the oil and gas industry as a price-manipulating entity also intent on defiling the planet, the empathetic Hughes commented wryly: “You’ve heard what people say about lawyers.”

He noted it’s important to keep in mind that such critics don’t know what they’re talking about.

“It’s emotion, not rational,” he said, “and as a lawyer I can say it’s no fun to be the object of all that fury. People are looking for an easy answer to their anxieties, so they blame it on geologists, Wall Street or whatever makes them feel better.

“If you called a congressman who railed against oil companies raising the price of oil last year and said why not give oil companies credit for oil prices coming down or maybe retract what you said on a specific day, he wouldn’t talk to you,” Hughes said. “There’s no headline in that ... He’s into what will sell on the 6 o’clock news.

One of the most evident rewards for many folks who participate in the challenging, high-risk business of finding and producing oil and gas is monetary profit, which the ordinary citizenry and the politicians routinely perceive to be excessive.

“One of the problems in the oil business is that some people make a whole bunch of money rather quickly,” Hughes said. “That incites the most destructive emotion known to man, which is envy.”

Over the past couple of years, the industry has focused more on getting the right message to the public, but perhaps it’s time to approach this in a different manner.

“Geologists aren’t necessarily good with presentations to the general public, and then they hire PR specialists who are slick but don’t understand geology, oil, economics, so they’re ineffectual with the public,” Hughes said.

He emphasized “it’s important that industry responds, and does it with simple charts, aphorisms, clarity, precision, good humor and warmth.”

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