business energy environment human rights shopping transport

Which is the most ethical oil company?

Oil is a messy industry, in pretty much every conceivable way. There’s no such thing as clean oil, or an environmentally friendly oil company, but there are degrees of responsibility. Likewise with business ethics. The oil companies have been involved in some very murky business in the past, and some really do have blood on their hands. So, which is the best one to buy your petrol from? Here are the top five oil companies, and a few notes on their record.

There are obvious places to start with Shell, but it feels a little unfair to start there. Still, since they are well known scandals, I will:

In the mid 90s, Shell was hit by two almost simultaneous PR disasters. The first of these was the planned sinking of the Brent Spar floating oil storage buoy, in the deep Atlantic. After a public outcry, it was eventually sunk as part of an artificial reef, but Shell was embarassed and forced to consider it’s environmental responsibilities very publicly.

At right around the same time, the company was embroiled in something far more insidious – a messy situation in Nigeria that at times was tantamount to genocide on Shell’s behalf. The Ogoni people of the Niger delta, a minority tribe, had seen their land decimated by years of drilling. Organised under the charismatic Ken Saro-Wiwa, they formed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, and began protesting. The army responded, with a brutal series of killings, beatings, and arrests. Saro-Wiwa was eventually framed for murder and executed.

There was no doubt that the clampdown was for Shell’s benefit, to ensure the continued flow of oil. Exactly who to blame is harder to ascertain. Could Shell have stopped it? Maybe. In their history book, A Century in Oil, they duck the question: “If Shell had broken one of its fundamental tenets and interfered with national politics, critics… would certainly and rightly have seen that as scandalous.”

In 1998, prompted in part by these two scandals, Shell published a report called ‘Profits and Principles – Does there have to be a choice?’ In it, the company outlined a commitment to social responsibility that is admirable, and highly unusual from an oil company. In it’s social and environmental reporting, “no oil company studied was as transparent as Shell” say Madrid’s Management and Excellence survey of oil company ethics, in which Shell comes top.

Total (+Fina, Elf)
The great black mark on Total’s record is Burma. As you may remember from the recent failed ‘Saffron Revolution’, where monks marched in the streets, Burma is a military dictatorship with an appalling record of abuses. Among the more notable is the fact that they called an election in 1990, and lost it. Instead of handing over power to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, they arrested her. She remains under house arrest to this day, a Nobel Prize winner and a remarkable woman.

Total OilTotal’s problem is that if they want the oil, they have to do business with dictators. Where some companies were not prepared to sanction their actions by bankrolling the military regime, Total have carried on regardless. “Total has become the main supporter of the Burmese military regime,” says Aung San Suu Kyi. With their billions of dollars in profits, the generals have been able to develop a powerful army, securing their unjust and unelected government against its own people.

As if that wasn’t enough, several years ago it was reported that Total had benefited from slave labour in Burma in the building of the Yadana pipeline. Total admit that slaves were probably used to build the pipeline in certain places, but deny that they ever used them themselves. That sounds to me like saying slavery is okay, as long as you’re not the one cracking the whip.

“Unfortunately, the world’s oil and gas reserves are not necessarily located in democracies” says Total’s website.

For more, see the Burma Campaign’s report on Total. (pdf)

BP (+Arco)
Environment: In some ways BP has led the way in trying to forge ‘Beyond Petroleum’, investing in renewable energy and trying to clean up its act. It has recently backtracked on some of that progress, but despite the disingenuous flower logo and the whiff of greenwash, BP remains probably the most environmentally progressive of the big five oil companies. That reputation took a big hit with the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which appeared to be a case of profits prioritised over safety. It was the worst of several cost-cutting incidents, but the company did handle the cleanup relatively well and pay its fair share of damages, although public outcry made it difficult to avoid.

On human rights, BP has big interests in Colombia, a country that runs essentially as a ‘war economy’. Although the country is torn between rival factions, BP has lobbied the US Government for military grants to Colombia, not to stabilise the region or fight the rebels, but to protect its oil pipelines. That’s not exactly helping their cause, and they could find themselves in increasing difficulty if the current crisis there persists.

To its credit though, BP was the first oil company to support the Publish what you pay campaign, a campaign for greater transparency in oil companies’ dealings with foreign governments. The Angolan government, which siphons off around 1 dollar in 7 of its oil revenues to private bank accounts, was so shocked that it threatened to throw BP out of the country for being too honest.

Currently plumbing a new environmental low point with their involvement in the Alberta tar sands, but perhaps most serious is Texaco’s 17-year involvement in Ecuador.

In the 70s and 80s Texaco drilled extensively in the Oriente region, and left behind a terrible mess. Their cavalier attitude left the region dotted with some 600 pits of toxic waste. As these were unlined, poisons have leaked into the water supply, resulting in cancers and respiratory illnesses.

They are now involved in one of the biggest corporate lawsuits in history, as a grassroots Ecuadorian movement accuses Texaco of deliberately using sub-standard practices in order to maximise profits. Pablo Fajardo is the name to watch – a jungle lawyer taking on the might of the American oil business, who know they will lose if it comes to court, and are dodging and fudging every way they can.

Evidence in Fajardo’s case includes Chevron workers getting away with rape, bribery and blackmail, as well as what Fajardo describes as ‘ecological genocide’ – six different tribes have been scattered by the oil industry’s involvement, and one has vanished altogether.

Chevron is also involved in Nigeria, and the Nigerian army has killed for Chevron on at least two documented occasions, probably more. One involved shooting protestors who had occupied a drilling platform. Another case actually got as far as a California court, after community protests were violently silenced.

Condoleeza Rice, National Security Advisor to George W Bush, spent ten years on the board at Texaco, and even has an oil tanker named after her until it was renamed the Altair Voyager to avoid political controversy. With friends like that, good luck to Pablo Fajardo.

Exxon-Mobil (+Esso)
The biggest company in the world, Exxon-Mobil was the first corporation to make a billion dollars in one day last year. Being so huge, it has been estimated that Exxon-Mobil is responsible for 5% of world co2 emissions, and yet they are the only oil company that doesn’t recognise climate change. BP acknowledged it in 1997, Shell in 98, Chevron-Texaco in 99. Ten years later, Exxon is still dragging its heels.

Not content with not endorsing climate change science, Exxon has actively funded scientists who agree with their position. After a long campaign against their involvement, they now claim to have stopped, but they’ve still set the debate back by years with their donations to groups like the Heartland Institute, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute. See left for their annual conference poster, or here for their ‘co2 – we call it life ad’. For more, see Exxpose Exxon, or Greenpeace’s nifty Exxon Secrets site, which maps scientists funding.

It’s not just the environment either. Heavily compromised in Indonesia, the International Labour Rights Fund brought a case to court on behalf of some Aceh villagers who claimed Exxon-Mobil had paid the Indonesian army to violate them. That was in 2001. The following year the case was rejected by the State Department because it would “risk a potentially serious adverse impact on significant interests of the United States.”

In other words, it’s strategic to US interests, and can therefore do what it likes.

There are other companies out there. Matthew Yeomans, in his book about oil, says Shell and BP are ahead, with definite commitments on the enviromnent and human rights. The American companies, Chevron-Texaco and Exxon-Mobil come second, talking about the issues even if they don’t do anything. Last come the others, the Russian and Chinese oil companies, and the nationalised operators who have no environmental and human rights standards at all.

I have a lot of further questions, not least about supermarket petrol, and the difference between brands, considering much of it comes from the same refineries. While I try to find out, you can make up your own mind who you’d like to buy from.


  1. This article touches on the issues of corporate social responsibility — and ethical investing. I believe that it is not only about deciding on our purchases as to which brand is greener, but also about where we put our money!

    I’ve been following spiritual and ethical investing for about forty years and some of your readers might find my site helpful in this area. It covers the latest global green and ethical investing news and research. It’s at

    Good luck and best wishes, Ron

  2. If you dont mind me asking, where did you happen to get your research on Shell and Exxon? I happen to be doing a project about the ethical issues facing the oil industry, mainly focusing on those two companies. Any information would be helpful. Thanks in advance.


  3. Hi, most of my information here is from three books, ‘Crude: the story of oil’, by Sonia Shah, ‘Oil’ by Matthew Yeomans, and ‘A Century in Oil’, from the Shell oil company. All the big companies have campaigns against them from local people in various parts of the world. Exxpose Exxon is one of Exxon’s, is one of Shell’s.

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  5. Hi!

    What about Petro Canada?
    How ethical are its practices and compared to Esso, Shell or Sunoco what oil company would be the greenest in Canada?


    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I don’t know much about Petro-Canada. I know they are one of the main stakeholders in the Alberta tar sands, which is considered to be the most damaging oil project in the world. Shell are also involved there. They are currently the target of a boycott from the Canadian Labour Congress, after a union dispute in Montreal. On the other hand, Petro Canada are striving for transparency. Their reporting is good, and they seem to be moving in the right direction on human rights and so on.

      As for the others, Esso are part of the Exxon Mobil family, which makes them one to avoid for all kinds of reasons. Shell is a little better, and Sunoco better still – they’re not perfect, but their reporting is good and they’re a bit smaller than other oil companies. The Sierra Club rates BP and Sunoco as the two least damaging companies to buy your oil from, but they didn’t compare Petro-Canada in their review.

      So, I’d guess Petro-Canada and Sunoco would be your best bets.

  6. hi
    If you dont mind me asking after such along time so i would like to know what do you think after the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico caused by bp what are the ethical issue bp facing
    Any information would be helpful. Thanks in advance.

    1. Good point, I haven’t updated this article to include the oil spill. I think it’s very disappointing, as it’s clear that it was cost-cutting that led to the spill. It was one of several incidents where profits had come before safety. Having said that, the cleanup operation was done well and they haven’t tried to avoid paying their fair share for the damage.

  7. Is is truly a great review of each major oil companies in the world. I am just wondering if you can lend me some help on BP. If you don’t mind me asking, what are the books or periodicals that you have use to write about BP? Also, any thoughts on how ethical BP is and how they are socially responsible?
    ps-If I am asking too much, I am very sorry. Names of some of the books will definitely do it!

  8. I read this article when I started driving. I only went to Sunoco. Petro-Canada bought them out! Now what! I don’t really want to support the tar sands either!

  9. It’s interesting to hear a relatively positive review on BP. Sadly I think their failures occurred long before Tony Hayward, more to do with John Browne and the risk taking culture he ensued.

    1. Yes, in some ways its a shame nobody notices the good that they do. They get all the negative attention, while smaller or less well known oil companies get away with murder.

  10. Hi!
    Thanks for posting about a topic that needs to be addressed and is too overlooked. I am trying to be a conscious consumer and be aware of products that I buy and businesses that I support. I am having trouble finding up to date information about the ethical practices of oil companies and their current conditions. Do you have any tips for me? Thanks 😀

  11. Oil is not ethical. It’s dirty.

    Renewable energy is ethical. No one can own it, and it’s clean.

    Why debate oil when green is the answer?

    1. See the opening sentence of the post! I agree that it’s dirty, but right now, most of us need to buy our petrol from somewhere. Until we don’t, what’s the harm in asking which is the least harmful company?

    2. Indeed, oil is dirty. Unfortunately, given my location, I can’t do without a car, and I cannot afford a more sustainable alternative (hybrid cars fare better but they are way above my budget. Without my car I couldn’t even go to work… what option do I have? Hence, at least I can pick an oil company that is “a little less bad”.

      1. I agree it would be nice to use good clean energy an be able to plug in your car. Where I lived for years the electricity came from coal and it was a rural area with great distances between places. With all the wind generators in our area we did not get that energy as it was exported out of our area. Fossil fuels were the only viable option.

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  13. I was prompted to come to this website while watching a program called Native Planet, and seeing the terrible damage Texaco is doing in Equador, specifically in the Amazon Basin.
    I realized that even though I live a world away, I too, am responsible for the damage that’s occurring in these places. I wish a campaign could be started where people all over the world would boycott companies like Texaco, to stand in solidarity with those affected, like the Equadorian tribes.
    These companies feel they can get away with these things because they are operating in mostly remote regions (hand in hand with suspect governments), where they believe they can cut corners and know one will notice or do anything about it.
    After reading this article I now know where I’ll be buying my petrol from
    (unfortunately I can’t afford to buy a hydrogen fuel cell car!)

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