Crisis Creates Shared Ethical Responsibilities

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

When BP responded to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the topic of ethics was among the things bubbling up in discussions.

Rusty Riese
Rusty Riese

Rusty Riese, this year’s AAPG Distinguished Ethics lecturer, had a backstage seat during the crisis as a BP geoscience adviser in alternate energy.

“I thought they (BP) did a wonderful job of explaining and being transparent,” said Riese, who retired from BP and now is an adjunct professor at Rice University in Houston.

The company met its basic responsibilities to clean up the spill and compensate those damaged by the event, he said.

The rancorous public debate surrounding the spill raises other ethical questions, Riese said.

Many parties have ethical responsibilities in times of crisis, he said.

“It’s more than just corporations,” he said. “Regulatory agencies, the public, the courts, legislators and the media all have roles to play.”

Responsibilities

In the Deepwater Horizon case, Riese said the media and elected officials seemed especially prone to bending ethical standards and using the situation to their own ends.

For example, the media’s doomsday reporting with pictures of threatened beaches and swamps probably did more to hurt Gulf Coast tourism than the spill itself, he said.

“The horrible wash-over of oil into those areas feared in the beginning never really happened,” Riese said.

Photos of cleanup efforts consistently referred to “devastated” beaches, while interviews with experts invariably focused on worst-case scenarios, he said.

Generating headlines “to suit a 24-hour news cycle ... the media weren’t performing in a really ethical manner,” Riese said.

Lawmakers and other officials likewise “used hyperbole to make points with their constituents,” he said – which meant some legislators “did as much damage as the media” to local tourism.

The public also has responsibilities, if ethical behavior is to be expected from the other parties involved, he said.

“People don’t do a good job of getting themselves informed or analyzing the information they get,” he said.

“They see the petroleum industry as an isolated, stand-alone component of the economy. They fail to see petroleum is just one piece ... of a much broader energy-producing industry,” he said.

“The public doesn’t realize the importance of energy to the lifestyle we enjoy,” he said, “or the scale of the alternatives.”

Natural gas, for example, “is explored for in the same way and by the same people as oil,” he said; wind farms take up huge swathes of countryside, and opponents contend they may endanger birds, mar scenic vistas, interfere with recreation areas and the like.

Needed: More Data

Geologists frequently deal with ethical questions, he said, adding that the most common situation may arise when presenting prospects when there is competition for funding.

“The scientific community does a poor job of providing data for the public,” he said.

Scientists, Riese continued, should inform themselves about the various issues before such crises arise, and should share that information with others.

Setting aside the deliberate torching of Kuwaiti oilfields in the first Gulf War, Deepwater Horizon is stacking up as the worst oil spill on record, he said.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska isn’t even in the top 10, but was headlined at the time as a pending ecological disaster of epic proportions.

“I was at Prince William Sound (site of the spill) two days ago and the wildlife warden looked happy,” Riese said.

One of the worst spills, the 1978 Amoco Cadiz off France, ultimately dissipated with little intervention and relatively slight impact on the coastal environment, Riese said.

Riese said most of the top 10 spills “self-remediated” or were remediated with some human intervention, and “none seemed to have long-term impact.”

Riese’s traveling presentation, which kicked off at the recent Pacific Section meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, includes a wealth of data that is available for the asking, he said.

Riese hopes to make the information available through AAPG’s website.

After his inaugural ethics talk several people in the audience took away copies of the data on flash drives or by downloads.

“That’s what I would like people to do.”

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