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Can oil companies be socially responsible?

An interesting opinion piece posted on Ethical Corporation’s website says that the Deepwater Horizon disaster has prompted soul-searching among members of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) community, and should spur reforms to the way in which companies are determined to be “responsible.”

The op-ed, by Natalya Sverjensky, makes some valid points. She asks how a company with a poor safety record can still earn high CSR rankings, or how some companies can be ranked poorly by one organization and earn high marks from another. These inconsistencies, she says, indicate that CSR organizations may have been ranking “illusions of responsibility” (as one of the subheads suggests), rather than the reality of performance. These are complex questions and definitely worth debating.

But then Ms. Sverjensky goes on to make some comments that I don’t think help progress that debate. She seems to suggest that oil companies can never be considered ethical, socially responsible or sustainable – no matter what their track record shows.

I couldn’t disagree more. The oil and gas industry’s primary social responsibility is to provide affordable, reliable energy that is essential for human progress, and to do so in a manner that is safe and protects the environment. This is not an abstract concept – we’re talking here about the energy that is needed to power our homes and businesses, cook our food, and drive transport and trade. How sustainable would our society be without it?

Consider, for instance, that even as alternative and renewable fuels are growing, fossil fuels still meet about 80 percent of the world’s energy needs. Looking over the next 20 years, most expert projections indicate they’ll still meet about 80 percent of our needs in 2030, when global energy demand will be about 35 percent higher than it was in 2005. And all this demand growth will come from developing countries — where access to energy is enabling economic and social progress on a scale never seen before.

However, we realize that we should be assessed not only on our ability to bring our product to market to meet these growing needs, but also on the manner in which we do so. And in my view, ExxonMobil has a strong track record to share – whether that be in daily operational performance, corporate governance, social and economic development programs or our work on technologies for lower emissions. We fundamentally believe that the environmental, safety and social performance of a company is a key measure in determining its longer-term sustainability. You can read more in our latest Corporate Citizenship Report.

Ms. Sverjensky is right to prompt a debate about the robustness of CSR ranking data. It’s an important debate because CSR rankings can make a very valuable contribution to understanding the performance of corporations across a range of indicators.  But to suggest that oil companies can’t operate responsibly – when the energy we produce underpins nearly every aspect of people’s lives and economies – is both incorrect and not a constructive way to advance the debate.

What do you think?

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