Back when I was generating and
presenting drilling deals as an independent prospector, I frequently
found myself feeling resentful because of my perception that with
every prospect presentation, I was giving away a certain amount
of precious geological knowledge and exploration strategy.
A sage mentor helped me put it in perspective:
"It goes with the territory, Pete. You just try to
limit how much you reveal, and accept the fact that you have to
educate prospective buyers in order to sell the venture.
"You try to protect yourself as much as you can,
with written confidentiality and non-complete agreements, selective
leasing and acreage-options. But there is a gray area in which unethical
people can take advantage. That's why you should be cautious and
discriminating about who you show your deal to, unless it's totally
under your control."
Most worthwhile joint ventures do not spring forth
whole. Before most of them are signed, sealed and delivered — as
a bundle of legally binding contracts covering as many future contingencies
as can be imagined — they generally develop through a progressive
series of conversations, meetings, memos of understanding, defined
areas of mutual interest (AOMI) and letters of intent.
Among one or all parties involved, therefore, there
is usually some risk in revealing sensitive concepts, geotechnical
data, tactical intelligence, financial details, organizational liabilities,
and business strategies, knowing that provisional co-venturers may
turn out to be competitors (should the deal fall through) or that
word of your ideas may leak out.
As my own professional interests have expanded, I
have learned that this principle applies to most business deals,
not just to oil and gas exploration.
That's one reason why professional ethics is so important
to successful careers, but especially in the petroleum E&P business.
Because most formal legal agreements evolve (rather than emerging
fully formed) they require a certain amount of trust among the parties
during their gestation period.
The expectation of ethical behavior in others is
the foundation of healthy free-market commerce.
Turns out that it's also essential to a vibrant scientific
community and open, progressive participative government!
As described by Rushworth Kidder (1996), the English
jurist John Fletcher Moulton recognized (1924) three great "Domains
of Human Activity:"
- Positive Law.
- Free Choice.
Law can be seen
- Codified Ethics — the evolved product
of Custom and Values.
- Ethics as the implementation of moral values,
requiring integrity and practice.
- Free Choice as the consequence of liberty,
allowing creativity, self-realization and, in extremity, license.
Lord Moulton described our actions in the realm of law as
"obedience to the enforceable," and in the realm of ethics (which
he termed "manners") as "obedience to the unenforceable." Figure
1 depicts this triad as a continuum, implying that the lateral
boundaries are dynamic:
That's one reason why we worry when folks show much more concern
for their individual freedom than for exercising it responsibly
— an ongoing problem with many folks in the entertainment business
and the print and TV media (as well as with derelict corporate
As Kidder notes, Lord Moulton recognized that the
real greatness of a nation (or society) "is measured by the extent
of this [domain] of obedience to the unenforceable … the extent
to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey
So, if ethical behavior is important to citizenship,
then where do young people acquire sound ethical principles? Home,
school and church are the standard answers (although academe increasingly
cops out under the doctrine of ethical relativism and situational
More particularly, how and where do young graduates
learn how to translate general ethics to more specific business
How do they marry technical competence with ethical
standards, so as to become young professionals?
How do they acquire sound familiarity with tried
and true E&P business usages?
In the past, that was the arena of mentors, a traditional
societal convention (and an honorable function) that, in our modern
organizational wisdom, we have largely allowed to atrophy. In most
E&P companies, the older folks who would have been mentors have
now been down-sized out, or retired.
But in any case, prospectors should always remember:
The expectation of ethical behavior in others is the foundation
of healthy free-market commerce. And it's a two-way street!
What should AAPG be doing to elevate awareness of
professional ethics among younger (as well as older) geoscientists?
Here are some ideas, in various stages of advancement, that have
been engendered by AAPG leaders such as Dan Smith, Robbie Gries
- Insist that each AAPG member who serves
as a Visiting Petroleum Geologist devote five or 10 minutes of
his/her talk to ethics and professionalism. There is already affirmative
- Similarly, maybe we should "beef up" AAPG's
Mentorship Program with respect to ethical content.
- The first AAPG Distinguished Ethics Lecturer,
John Gibson, president and CEO of Halliburton Energy Services
Group, will deliver 15-20 lectures to select AAPG audiences during
2003 and 2004.
- Publish a regular series of articles in
the EXPLORER, relating actual case histories of ethical conflicts
in the E&P business, paying particular attention to the consequences
to the parties involved.
- The Division of Professional Affairs is
sponsoring the design of a lively and engaging new short course
on ethics and professionalism in geoscience and the E&P business.
- AAPG is encouraging universities with petroleum
geology programs to consider including regular or annual lectures
on professional ethics in their required curriculum.
Recommended Reading: How Good People Make Tough Choices:
Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, by Rushworth M. Kidder,
Fireside (Simon & Schuster) New York, 1996.
I'm indebted to John Gibson for referring me to this
outstanding, highly readable little book, one of the very best references
I've ever read about practical ethics in professional practice as
well as everyday life. I used Kidder's book extensively in preparing
this column, and I commend it to all AAPG members as a "must" read!
Read it, you'll like it!