Gulf Oil Spill Ethics


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: With spilled oil now reaching all the Gulf States, the White House this week demanded more answers from BP about its cleanup efforts. Meanwhile, a prominent ethicist is calling for a much deeper national discussion about the moral implications of the spill. Kim Lawton reports.

PROFESSOR PAUL ROOT WOLPE (Director, Emory University Center for Ethics): It’s an ecological tragedy, it’s an economic tragedy, it’s a political tragedy, and it’s an ethical tragedy. Given that that is the case, what is the ethical response?

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Paul Root Wolpe directs Emory University’s Center for Ethics. He says because American dependence on oil is partly responsible for the crisis, it needs to be addressed in the responses as well.

WOLPE: One basic ethical issue is, as we criticize BP or as we criticize other responses to this, we have to look to ourselves and ask ourselves what are our contributions to this crisis? The second issue is how are we going to balance our dedication to the environment to our need for comfort?

LAWTON: Wolpe says scenes from the Gulf should force Americans to seriously reconsider their use of oil and the need to make greater lifestyle sacrifices—also, he says, to seek other sources of energy. But Wolpe says that conversation is not taking place on a broad enough scale.

WOLPE: The responses have been primarily economic and political, and they’re very important. But that economic and political response has to be tempered by a question of what are the values we are pursuing in those responses? That’s where ethics comes in. Ethics precedes your economic and political judgments, because it clarifies the values by which you should make those decisions.

LAWTON: And without that discussion, he says tragedies like the Gulf disaster will continue to happen.

I’m Kim Lawton reporting.

  • E.Patrick Mosman

    One wonders if Professor Wolpe has ever considered calling for a serious discussion on the ethical and moral issues of flying or sailing after crashes, sinkings, terrorists attacks and disasters which caused serious loss of life and economic harm. Has Professor Wolpe ever seriously considered what the world and the life of its inhabitants would be like without the discovery of oil and natural gas? Perhaps a serious refection on ‘life before hydrocarbon fuels’, the use of wood and sperm oil as sources of energy, would raise equally moral and ethical issues. Doesn’t today’s race to raise gigantic wind mills and transmission lines, destroying scenic beauty, also raise ethical and moral issues?
    The operative world need is ENERGY in its most convenient and compact form from any source for all operations. By blaming the producers and users of hydrocarbon based energy as lacking in ethical behavior Professor Wolpe now seeks to use ‘guilt’ as a weapon against the energy users and joins President Obama and his Czars, EPA and Energy secretaries whose sheer ignorance of the energy world is beyond the pale. The President’s thoughts “addiction to oil and particularly, to foreign oil” on an all “green energy “world may have a few serious drawbacks and misconceptions. In the first place, Canada and Mexico, two members of NAFTA, are the largest suppliers of crude oil to the United States, followed by Saudi Arabia that has a 50/50 joint venture with Shell USA, Venezuela that owns CITGO and Nigeria. One point that appears to dominate all future scenarios is the almost total concern with replacing gasoline as a transportation fuel with something else, ethanol from any source, hydrogen and now ‘carbon-free electricity.’ This is supposed to insure energy independence from importing ‘foreign’ crude oil. Since less than 50% of a barrel of crude oil is turned into gasoline, 44 to 48 percent, the remaining 50+percent provides refinery gas, propane, butane, aviation gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, diesel fuel, home heating oil, lubricating oils /greases for both transportation and industrial applications, feed stocks for petrochemical, detergents, plastics and rubber industries, fuels for marine shipping, asphalt for our roads and highways and last but not least military specification petroleum products. A carbon based petroleum free world appears bleak indeed as humanity may be forced to learn new skills, such as, starting fires with two sticks and hunting whales from sailing ships for sperm oil to light the reading lamps. An Energy Policy would include<
    -exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas in and on all onshore and offshore lands and territories of the USA,
    -coal to oil refineries, such as SASOL in South Africa, and shale oil recovery would be encouraged and allowed,
    -building of nuclear (where adequate cooling water is available), coal and/or natural gas power plants would be accelerated,

    Those who oppose drilling for oil also oppose the use and development of coal, shale, dams, nuclear and even windmills (NIMBY Liberals) as energy sources all of which would be provided by investments by corporations while preferring to place their hopes in investing tens of not hundreds of billions of dollars wrested from taxpayers in the hopes that sometime in the future energy sources will be developed that will not only replace the today's energy sources but will keep up with increasing demand of the future. The ultimate source for this future energy world be it sun, wind, crops or waves is dependent on the fickle whims and fancies of mother nature an often brutal and unforgiving taskmaster. Both Newton and Einstein used a 'thought' idea to set up and think through a problem and there doesn't see to have been much thought given to possible problems and unintended consequences of an all electric world when hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, hail, snow/ice storms or enemy actions wreak havoc on the power transmission systems.
    The future might be predicted by the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still", the original.

  • Fr. IanYorston

    Our dependence on oil drives exploration futher afield and drilling even deeper. Consequently spills and accidents are all the more likely. At what point will the next biggest spill ever turn our attention to developing alternative fuuels? There is a corporate responsibilty here.

  • E.Patrick Mosman

    It is not “Our dependence on oil drives exploration futher afield and drilling even deeper.” but it is the world’s demand for ‘ENERGY’ plus the added restrictions by the US government’s closing down onshore, shallow water and now deep water offshore sites where exploration has already shown oil deposits which drives exploration..
    In the 1980’s Brazil tried the ‘go green’ approach with ethanol and biodiesel both of which not only failed to reduce Brazil’s demand for imported crude oil and petroleum products but opened the eyes and pocket books of the Brazilian government to DRILLING both on shore and off shore. Today Brazil is self sufficient in crude oil, has billions of barrels in reserves and has more than doubled crude oil refining.
    Recently the Obama administration’s ExIm bank authorized a two billion loan to Petrobras, the Brazilian government’ oil company to purchase American made equipment and services for its offshore Deep Water drilling projects. Don’t be surprised to one day find foreign oil companies drilling 90 miles off the Florida coast in Cuban waters. Supporting deep water drilling projects off the coast of Brazil but shutting down similar projects in the Gulf is the epitome of hypocrisy. Every major developed and developing country is searching for oil both onshore and offshore except the USA, a nation that is now like Gulliver being tied down by bureaucratic Lilliputans.

  • Joe Cubells

    I think EPM’s angry comments miss the point Professor Wolpe tried to make. In my reading of his comments, he is quite explicitly arguing that people (like most Americans, for example) who castigate BP and the oil industry for offshore drilling, and then jump in their SUVs to run to the grocery store half a mile away to pick up a quart of milk are being quite hypocritical. The message I read in Wolpe’s remarks is that each of us needs to examine our own behavior with regard to the use of ENERGY (I completely agree with EPM that the real debate is about energy more broadly), and each of us, ethically, ought to do everything we can to conserve energy, especially in light of the fact that Americans, something like 5% of the world’s people, use something like 25% of its energy. We all share the blame for the tragedy in the gulf– that is the point.


  • E.Patrick Mosman

    “We all share the blame for the tragedy in the gulf– that is the point.” calls for a belief in ‘collective guilt’ which requires that everyone who drives a car, travels by car or plane, uses electric power, the list goes on, must accept blame for every person killed in car or plane accident or fires started by faulty electrical connections. The accident in the Gulf is a major disaster but so is the destruction of forests around the globe so soy, sugar cane and corn can be grown to produce ethanol and bio-fuels, all of which are carbon based.. Apparently hydrocarbons are bad but carbon containing ethanol and bio-diesel are good as the destruction they reek on nature and wildlife do not produce photo-ops of oil stained birds and turtles.

  • Enviro Mental

    So if all these things are inevitable then what is the solution? To do nothing? To continue a road that is not sustainable or (if subsidies were ever stripped away — something like 15-35 billion a year) economical or a prosperous future for our children. There is no magic bullet and there will always be trade offs. But there are better ways and practices that would signifigantly reduce the impact we currently have on this planet. E.Patrick brought up Brazil being self sustained in crude oil. Right now the indiginous Equadorians, next door neighbors to Brazil, are fighting to survive. Their way of life has almost been made extinct because of disposal methods Oil tycoons Texaco (later merged to Chevron) into their life waters of the Amazon. Their culture is disapearing and cancer runs rampant in very impoverished areas of the rainforest where healthcare is hours away and people have to choose between working enough to eat that day and traveling (like one mother) to take her 17 year old daughter to her cancer treatments. While Chevron systematically contaminated one of the most biodiversity rich places of the earth, as is always the case, the people pay for the repurcussions. There’s a great documentary called Crude that highlights the ongoing case between Chevron and the people of Equador. It’s still yet to be settled and while Chevron throws millions of dollars at fighting in court just to save face and admit no wrongs, the people suffer.
    The people of the Gulf will undoubtedly have long term repurcussions as well, lasting ones. The fishing industry could very well be over in that area. People recieving settlements now may, 10 years from now, find that they have no means to continue their life as they always had because the damages to their ecosystem is too deep to bounce back. But if they’re recieving settlements now chances are they’re signing waivers to waive their right to claims later, the claims that will really matter in the long haul.
    The point of all this is the human consequences are many and worldwide and we must put the resources we continue to throw into a broken system, into a new and updated one. Hopefully the Gulf disaster will be a wake up call…although from the lack of coverage and public outcry now, a few short weeks after they capped the well, makes me doubt if we’ve learned any lessons at all.