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Introducing my PhD topic: Environmental consciousness and moral reasoning in the oil & gas industry

Artwork: Dan Rawlings / Photography: Mark Bickerdike

After starting my PhD with the University of Southampton last September, I am now in a position, having been granted approval from the ethics committee, to share some more insights into the topic I have chosen to research over the next couple of years, and why I find it not only fascinating, but also critical. I will be continuing to explore moral reasoning at work, following on from my MSc research and general personal interest, and will do so through studying experiences of people working in the oil & gas industry, specifically their perspectives on climate change, sustainability, and feelings about working in an industry which is positioning itself as part of the solution, yet marked by ongoing controversy over its continuing levels of fossil fuels-related activities and profits, and accusations of greenwashing. I wish to investigate the extent to which the industry's own employees' views might be at odds with some of its activities and how they are perceived by the general public, how this affects these employees, what actions they might take as a result, including those deciding to step away, and how this level of consciousness might help drive and accelerate meaningful change from the inside.

Moral reasoning and self-worth at work

Underpinning my entire research is an interest in processes of moral reasoning people experience at work. In other words, how people facing certain situations establish for themselves what "doing the right thing" means, talk about these thought processes, and act upon them. Very often, this is studied in relation to short term actions and decision-making - for example, what do you do if you notice a close colleague of yours taking credit for work that you know someone else performed. I aim to take a broader approach which considers the moral aspects and consideration of organisations' activities, and their impact on the world. Does an organisation or industry's operations or product cause, or have the potential to cause, harm to people or the environment in any way? How is this perceived by its employees? By joining a company, do we assume that people automatically agree with and get behind all aspects of its activities? There are various theories, models and philosophies related to moral reasoning which come into play, and which I aim to review, and I will have a particular interest in ways in which people maintain a sense of self-worth and personal fulfilment in such circumstances.

The oil & gas industry and climate change

Over the last decades, the discourse on climate change has evolved from a possible threat to a stark reality for many around the world, through the rise of severe weather events and ensuing loss of life and displacement of populations. The agreement in principle for the need for significant action and change is there, yet there is much concern around its materialisation and the lack of commitment and proof thereof from some of the major players, be they governments or private corporations. The oil & gas industry is at the forefront of this discussion, due to its share of responsibility in our current and future greenhouse gas emissions, and overall energy strategies. Change is happening, and I am mindful that many organisations now see themselves as integrated energy rather than oil & gas companies, with increased involvement in renewable energy. Despite this, perception of the industry and its "giant" companies remains affected by reports of larger continuing investments in fossil fuels than would be hoped or anticipated, casting doubt over the genuineness of their environmental commitments. In addition, the public opinion reacts negatively to regular news of record profits from these companies, seen as benefitting from increasing prices caused by the Ukraine war, at times of widespread struggles with cost of living. In this context, it is fair to anticipate that people working in the oil & gas industry would not remain shielded from these challenges, and be affected in various degrees. Existing research on the industry's position towards climate change and sustainability has tended to position the industry as one cohesive entity driven towards consistent goals, or focus on its top executives. Through this research, I am interested in bringing individual perspectives and experiences of people from all parts of the industry into focus.

Research design

To address the points I have described above, I will take a qualitative approach, focusing on lived experiences, individual perspectives, and an attempt at co-creating possible ways forward. Practically, there will be three main parts in the study:

  • A first one gathering insights through interviews of existing oil & gas / energy industry employees, from various backgrounds, discussing their perspective on the industry's role in climate change, and how they position themselves within it

  • A second step focusing on actions taken as a result of environmental concern and moral reasoning, where further perspectives will be gathered from individuals who made the decision to leave the industry for environmental reasons

  • A final step which will look to bring together current and former industry employees in open discussions and co-creation of recommendations for the industry

All of these will be conducted with great concerns for participants confidentiality and anonymity. Research articles will be created for each of these steps, which will be brought together to form the wider thesis I will look to submit and defend as part of my PhD.

Of course, through this work I will be connecting these findings with the existing research literature on these and associated topics, and using theoretical models and philosophical approaches to structure my investigations and reflections. I have deliberately refrained from referencing many of these in this article, however will undoubtedly be writing more about them in the coming months. I am truly excited at the prospect of getting this research started, learning from it through reading, connections, and interviews, and hoping to generate insights contributing to tackling the climate emergency, as well as a better understanding and appreciation for employees' individual positions and rich potential for positive change.

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