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Rachelle Hollander Senior Advisor, Center for Engineering Ethics and Society Retired National Academy of Engineering More Posts
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Research Ethics and the Norwegian Oil Industry
Research Ethics and the Norwegian Oil Industry


Author(s) Rachelle Hollander
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Year 2017
Funder NSF
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  • Jessica M. Smith

    Posted 2 years and 9 months ago

    The conclusion reached by the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) committee challenges an ideology and ethics of inevitability present in fossil fuel industries. The anthropologist Laura Nader first identified an ideology of inevitability during her service on the US National Academy of Science’s Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems (CONAES). Her observations led her to identify the implicit cultural assumptions animating much policymaking, from ‘group think’ and a rejection of energy conservation and ‘soft paths’ like solar energy to an ‘inevitability syndrome’ that excluded from consideration models that did not rest on ever-expanding resource use.

    Since then, anthropologists such as David Hughes and Chelsea Chapman and historians such as Matthew Huber have similarly found professionals in the oil and gas industry, including scientists and engineers, expressing positions that defend fossil fuels on the grounds that our society will always require them. Hughes in particular argues that this position is an ethical one. He starts with the position that oil is immoral because the ‘contemporary great evil of dumping carbon dioxide into the skies’ hastens global climate change that harms the environment and vulnerable populations (2016: 14). Therefore, he argues, treating oil production and consumption as inevitable is also an immoral position, since it allows climate change to continue unabated without considering how energy can be conserved or produced in more carbon-neutral methods.

    By concluding that petroleum research would be indefensible if it hindered transitions to sustainable energy, the NENT challenged prevailing assumptions that continued reliance on oil is inevitable. But rather than discourage petroleum research in its entirety, the committee also acknowledged that petroleum research ‘still has a role to play in the transition process, for example by establishing a defensible balance between research on various energy sources in which the key constituents are research on renewable energy and on how negative impacts on the ecology can be reduced.’

    The challenge and opportunity lie in the nature of the ‘collaborations’ between industry and universities, given the conflicts of interest that exist when academic research is funded by companies such as Statoil. In their statement the NENT found it ‘striking that the universities do not reflect to a greater extent on their own role in possibly preserving the status quo through their collaboration with the petroleum industry,’ by prolonging and legitimizing the oil age, for example. The committee called for efforts to ensure that ‘the universities’ research and education and the special interests of business sector actors are independent of each other.’ This raises the crucial question of how university scientists and engineers could collaborate with industry to make more sustainable technologies and techniques.


    Chapman, C. 2013. Multinatural resources: Ontologies of energy and the politics of inevitability in Alaska. In Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies (eds) S. Strauss, S. Rupp and T. Love, 96–109. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    Huber, M. T. 2013. Lifeblood: Oil, freedom, and the forces of capital. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

    Hughes, D. M. 2017. Energy without conscience: Oil, climate change, and complicity. Durham: Duke University Press Books.

    Nader, L. 1980. Energy choices in a democratic society. Washington: National Academy of Sciences.
    ––––––– 2004. The harder path: Shifting gears. Anthropological Quarterly 77, 771–791.
  • Rune  Nydal

    Posted 2 years and 9 months ago

    This case illustrates a role ethical committees may play as a catalyst for public debates. NENT was established in 1990 as one of three independent committees by the Norwegian government, and the Ministry of Education appoints the members ( One objective is to stimulate better, more informed, public debate on research ethical issues. How can a committee make this happen? Traditional ways to do this are to arrange public meetings, write reports, edit academic papers and formulate research ethical codes. Such initiatives may or may not make a difference, depending on the uptake of the committee’s work, their relevance and legitimacy.

    In this case, the committee made a difference simply by being an established institution one could turn to, with capacities to open and extend a debate further. The critics of petroleum research could refer to NENT’s research ethical codes that included issues of social responsibility and sustainability. And the rector could turn to NENT for advice on how to interpret these. NENT in turn, were able to engage relevant stakeholders at the national level. Given the formal role of NENT, the committee could send questions to rectors at the main universities, The Research Council of Norway, relevant ministries and Statoil — and expect an answer. All correspondences are publicly available. NENT assessed the answers given and offered the public statement also informed by ongoing public discussions during the period NENT worked on the case. The fact that NENT considered the ethics of petroleum research was news in Norway, being an oil producing country. The stakeholders were waiting for the statement, and asked for comments in national media and locally arranged debates at the universities. It is hard to think that the debate would have become so vivid nationally if the committee had not been there as a catalyzer for concerns found in many different sectors of the Norwegian research system.

Cite this page: "Research Ethics and the Norwegian Oil Industry" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 1/5/2018 OEC Accessed: Sunday, October 18, 2020 <>