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How much do we really want to know about the oil industry?

How much do we really want to know about the oil industry?

Via Kate Mackenzie at the Financial Times, a graph charting the not terribly surprising impact the Gulf oil spill has had on BP’s image, once among the best in the industry:

It’s from a firm called Covalence that calculates companies’ ethical reputations and, on a neat mapping tool, tracks them against the amount of attention the companies are receiving in the media. (Methodology here.) From this report, a look at how different international industries have fared over the past half-decade, as the volume of information about them has generally increased:

Not only is the oil and gas industry in the basement, but it’s one of the only industries whose reputation gets actively worse the more we know about it. For the largest oil and gas companies, the relationship is even starker — spikes in attention track closely with drops in reputation.

On one level, this is probably just a measure of the very different reasons that different industries find themselves in the headlines. (When a tech company is in the news, it’s because it’s launching the iPad. When an oil company is in the news, it’s because it has befouled a major ecosystem for a generation.) And energy companies are often particularly bad actors on the world stage.

But I suspect it’s also a testament to the degree to which both the oil industry and the global public that depends on it are more comfortable when the latter knows less about how the former does its work — the business of energy production is rarely pretty. Which is why all the unflattering attention is important: The best case for drilling domestically in the United States, rather than somewhere like Nigeria, is that the added scrutiny that operations here receive — from the government, the media, and environmental organizations — makes companies behave better than they do in the Niger River Delta, where oil operations are estimated to have leaked an amount comparable to the Gulf oil spill since the 1970s, and garnered a fraction of the international outrage.