Should we use ethical thinking to respond to harm caused by oil’s boom and bust periods?

Many years ago, I wrote a piece for the Denver Post. At the time, I was the dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado. The column appeared just after the earthquake that devastated part of the Marina in San Francisco and was preceded, I believe, by a series of tornadoes in Tornado Alley in the Midwest. At the time, I expressed my concern that Congress was rushing to approve legislation that would aid individuals and communities that were negatively affected by both traumas. While I was in favor of helping them, I wondered out loud in the piece, “Why is it so easy for our leaders to immediately respond to people and communities where there is a reasonable probability that terrible events like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding will occur relatively frequently or with some certainty over time?” Put another way, community development and home buying or renting are most often conscious choices by individuals, groups and institutions. If they can choose where to live and/or develop, and if they know in advance that their choice is risky because of geology or climate, except for emergency support, should extensive public assistance be provided without too much discussion or analysis in the form of subsidies, insurance, tax breaks (an imputed subsidy) — particularly when it’s so hard to maintain social welfare and education initiatives for the poor who have few choices?

texas2Policy polarization is as bad as political or ideological polarization and complex questions of policy deserve more than an either/or dialogue, particularly when the pool of funds, public, nonprofit or private resources is limited, and should require efficient and equitable choices. It may well be that living in risky areas is the only choice of some households, given income or job constraints. But clearly, many of the folks living in hurricane-prone areas along the East Coast (e.g., Hilton Head) or in earthquake-susceptible areas like the Marina in San Francisco, are not among the poor or very poor. Developers, who read relevant government maps and study models, also know that higher tides and flooding, likely related to climate change, are increasingly possible along America’s coast lines. Yet development still goes on and builders make profits, and in the end the public often pays when calamities happen.

Now, what does all this have to do with ethics, gasoline and alternative replacement fuels? I have been intrigued with the recent spate of articles concerning the fact that the decline of gas prices (increasing over the past two weeks, at least) has benefited certain vulnerable, low-income people and has harmed others. As important, perhaps, the decline has made community leaders and residents in areas subject to the recent oil boom worried about the impact of price reductions on the tax base, new development and maintaining services. Most are clearly more sensitive than they have been to the effect of oil boom and bust periods.

Clearly, the least advantaged among us have secured what amounts to a personal income and household budget boost from the lower costs of gasoline. It is likely that their jobs and quality of life prospects have increased simultaneously. They can search for a job farther from their home, they can visit relatives who do not live in their community more easily and affordably, they might even be able to take a vacation using their car. But other low- and, indeed, moderate-income folks have suffered either because current or anticipated cutbacks in oil production, for example, in the Texas shale area will cost or will soon cost many of them their jobs and because their communities have had to cut back on needed often promised services. An oil producer, local to the Texas shale area, recently told Financial Times: “We are stacking rigs and laying people off every day. Everyone is.”

Questions whether the current increase in oil prices is a preface to the future or are just a part of resource instability are now being argued in the media by would-be experts. But the ethical questions concerning winners and losers, as well as possible public support options and company behavior, are and will remain pervasive. They are just as difficult to answer now as they were years ago and will likely still be difficult to answer years from now.

“While the town’s oil workers [and their communities (my addition)] count themselves as victims of the slump in crude prices, they in part contributed to their own downfall,” the author of the Financial Times piece wrote. Visions of permanent, high-paying jobs drew many employees to oil-boom areas and visions of higher taxes and sustained economic growth converted town leaders to boosters for speculative spending and oil-related development — often without attention to reserves and debt.

Estimates of profits, technological inventions, such as fracking, and the high price of oil and gas just a few years ago generated producer behavior in seeking leases and installing drilling rigs.

Sorry to drop a name, but if you buy into Rawlsian ethics (and if you don’t, let’s discuss), a country’s real greatness is defined by how it treats the least among us. In this context, the oil companies deserve little sympathy. They are long-time recipients of significant direct and indirect or imputed public subsidies. Production is still rising, and their bottom line, in light of the choices they have to cut back spending, will likely remain strong.

The ethical issues, as noted earlier, are trickier for employees and towns. To some extent, employees were captured by iterative boom town publicity, employments ads, “drill, baby, drill” talk out of Washington, and reports of comparatively high income levels in oil production areas. Over America’s history, household mobility has probably raised more incomes and provided more quality of life choices to those involved than any existing public policy.

Clearly, many people who had choices because of income and family structure to begin with were motivated to move to the oil shale areas. If they chose to move and their decisions were wrong, to what extent is the larger community or the nation responsible to provide support, apart from advice? It’s a tough question, given budgetary constraints and the increased numbers of low-income folks in the nation, some of whom had no choice concerning jobs but to move to boom communities or to stay in place. Similarly, if the cities and towns involved saw oil production as their ticket to a glorious future, and if they were wrong or they didn’t hedge the bet, does management weaknesses and local boosterism merit more than sympathy for the human condition and the lack of perfection in our leaders? Again, these are tough questions because real people are involved. Many Midwestern, Southwestern, and Western areas have become ghost towns or towns that once dreamed and are now more off-the-road tourist attractions of what used to be viable communities.

Let’s go back to the future. Maybe just maybe some of these global ethical issues could be reduced if the oil industry itself assumed some responsibility for social and community problems during “bust” times. Not just a reserve fund or diverse investments and products to help the company ride out long busts, but a fund to help communities they have “rigged (excuse the play on words)” and their residents ride out the down economic tide, and for employees to relocate if they want to. Probably a bad idea, but think about it! Companies get federal help, even in boom times, even when most analysts of right and left say it’s unnecessary. What’s wrong with a relatively small payback? Values based capitalism!

Perhaps ethical issues could be lessened if the federal government and oil companies could be convinced to move toward open fuel markets. Gas prices seem to be on the rise. One way to hold them down and provide low- and moderate-income workers a break is to convert gasoline stations to fuel stations. Given the lower prices of alternative fuels, competition, in this instance, would sustain at least part of the income benefits that consumers, including low- and moderate-income consumers, have had when gas was priced at low levels. Competition might also help maintain the economy of some shale areas that, for example, produce natural gas and have, or can have, site blenders for ethanol.

As I said earlier, basic ethical problems related to resource distribution, whether related to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or oil economic boom and bust cycles are difficult to resolve easily. Assigning fault between public, private sectors and individuals is a complicated task, made more complicated because of numerous exogenous variables that are not readily influenced in the short term (e.g., climate change or tension in the Middle East) at least by institutional, group or human actions, as well as a lack of data concerning cause and effect relationships and the power of special interest groups. We probably are condemned to the noted political scientist Charles Lindblom’s description of policymaking as muddling through to decisions. After consulting many companies and working with citizen groups and individuals over the years, I would add that the muddling process applies in varying degrees to them also. It’s the American way and has its advantages, particularly when we are uncertain about alternative strategies. Indeed, often it has better outcomes than decisions by fiat. Many times, it helps generate consensus during decision making processes and about decisions. Importantly, it also many times increases involvement of disenfranchised constituencies. But we can try to do better muddles!

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