Motor Oil Drain Intervals:
An Ethical Burden?
By David McFall
Lubes-n-Greases - December,
At the top of the pollution hierarchy,
most would agree, is nuclear waste. Near the bottom
is nuisance or short-lived pollution, such as paper
candy wrappers or orange peels. Technology neutralizes
much of the rest - but not dumped, untreated used
It is inconceivable that the nuclear
power industry would conspire to use one more unit
of fuel than absolutely necessary. Its waste product,
spent uranium fuel rods, represents a gigantic environmental
pollutant and threat. Unlike nuclear fuel rods,
the waste product of the passenger car engine oil
industry - used engine oil - doesn't have to be
buried for thousands of years deep inside a Utah
mountain. But used engine oil, too, comes at a high
"Improperly disposed used
oil," according to the Environmental Protection
Agency, "is the largest single source of oil
pollution fouling our nation's waters. According
to the American Petroleum Institute, it amounts
to "up to 200 million gallons of used motor
oil... dumped every year down sewers, drains or
in the ground." API reminds us, too, that,
"A single quart of oil can foul thousands of
gallons of water."
Unnecessary production of a consumer
product results in excess waste. You buy too much
of a product (shampoo for example), you can use
the excess eventually or pour it down the drain,
where the municipal water authority handles it.
You buy two heads of lettuce and one goes bad, you
scrap it. None of these outcomes has direct or permanent
Used engine oil, on the other
hand, has long-lasting, measurable and significant
pollution effects, unique among industrial products.
On the pollution continuum, its environmental impact
is closer to used nuclear fuel rods than to shampoo.
While the nuclear power industry
would not support the production of excess uranium
fuel, it is not inconceivable that the U.S. oil
industry would support, encourage and skillfully
promote excess gasoline engine oil usage, despite
the harmful effects of its waste product on the
There is, in fact, considerable
evidence to support this conclusion:
On their labels and advertising,
many U.S. oil marketers describe their products
as "exceeding" oil industry specifications
and vehicle manufacturers' warranties, but they
are unanimously silent in providing any guidance
on translating this higher quality level into practical
help for consumers.
An Ethical Dimension
Ethical considerations are not
foreign to business and governmental decisions.
They are, for example, central to a proposed and
U.S. government-supported, Jar-reaching international
treaty designed to combat tobacco, a proven carcinogen.
The treaty is designed to make it more difficult
for cigarette companies to promote and sell their
products worldwide. That is, to minimize its market.
Moreover, some industries and companies are moving,
albeit reluctantly and glacially in some cases,
into rethinking their societal obligations. Last
year Kraft Foods voluntarily agreed to stop selling
and promoting its obesity-inducing products in schools,
at the expense of its sales volume.
Does the exceptional pollution
burden of used engine oil impose a higher ethical
dimension on engine oil marketers than it does on
the managers of other industries where pollution
is a manageable or negligible factor?
Do lube industry managers have
an ethical duty to develop and reveal information
on their product that could reduce the pollution
burden -- even though it might reduce the size of
In short, is there an extra ethical
burden on this industry compared to others?
For answers, I turned to Dr. Michael
Hoffman, executive director of Bentley College's
Center for Business Ethics in Waltham, Mass. In
an early November interview, he remarked, "Any
corporation that makes a product which creates exceptional
hazardous effects on the environment has an increased
ethical obligation to find solutions to decrease
those effects. A universal or absolute business
ethics principle is to avoid causing unjustifiable
harm, and to find strategies to reduce harm, especially
that which is self-caused, whenever or wherever
possible to do so.
"These comments certainly
apply to used engine oil, and challenge the oil
industry to demonstrate that it is doing everything
possible to meet this ethical standard," he
continued. "Unfortunately, there is evidence
to suggest that this is not happening."
He added pointedly, "Furthermore,
corporate ethical sensitivity and social responsibility
are at a high-water mark today, perhaps more than
ever before in the minds of companies' stockholders.
So much so, in fact, that companies which demonstrate
that they have developed an ethical edge will gain
competitive edge in the market, which might be called
the business case for business ethics. The oil industry
would do well to grasp this insight and become more
transparent and forthcoming about the information
it has and the progress its making toward increasing
the drain interval of engine oil."
The Official Position
Standing astride and guiding the
oil industry's effort is its primary trade association,
the powerful American Petroleum Institute. It is
also responsible for educating consumers about motor
oil quality, usage and disposal.
API's downstream general manager,
Edward H. Murphy, summed up the oil industry position
earlier this year: "Auto manufacturers recommend
oil drain intervals for the vast array of vehicles
they sell and the many conditions under which they
operate. Attempts by individual oil marketers to
issue different oil drain interval requirements
could result in consumer confusion, or worse, invalidated
These are two valuable thoughts,
"consumer confusion" and "invalidated
warranties." Auto manufacturers are very conservative
with their intervals because warranty claims can
be very expensive. Still, the last decade has seen
a vast improvement in engine oil quality, which
automakers have been centrally involved in through
their International Lubricants Standardization and
The auto makers have responded
to this quality explosion in differing ways, but
it is fair to say OEMs have not yet fully exploited
the high quality of current engine oil with their
drain interval recommendations. Why not?
Few consumers would disregard
the owner's manual while a vehicle is under warranty,
so the threat of "invalidated warranties"
seems a red herring. As the Automotive Oil Change
Association notes, the U.S. vehicle fleet "is
comprised primarily of vehicles 8 to 10 years old
without any manufacturer's warranty coverage."
In early200l, Valvoline found, "The average
vehicle age in the United Slates is 8-1/2 years
and climbing ... more than 80 million ~cars have
been on the road in excess of 11 years ... over
64 percent of the cars on the road have more than
75,000 miles." Seeing a need, Valvoline was
glad to launch a high-mileage oil that taps into
consumer concern for ageing engines. Nearly every
major brand has followed suit. Cannot the same be
done for drain intervals?
The "consumer confusion"
which API fears will happen if oil marketers offer
drain interval recommendations is already a stark
feature of the gasoline engine oil market. None
of the major players is working to relieve that
Their stance treat consumers like
ignorant yokels- ignores the high technical skills
of the oil industry, the advances in engine design
and materials, the vast improvement in engine oil
quality over the past decade, the impact of untreated
oil flowing into the environment and common sense.
Too, it is an insult to the ethically and technically
rigorous individuals who put their best efforts
into every engine oil quality upgrade.
Coming Next: Oil
Company Petspectives Among dozens
of we//known firms in the luhricants industry three
stand out: Shell, ExxonMobil and Valvoline. Each
is a pacesetter and their public and technical positions
carry weight. Together they control nearly two-thirds
of the US. engine oil market. Next month, we'll
see how each is grappling with the ethics of motor
Automotive Editor David
McFall spent 22 years in the federal government,
followed by a 5-year stint at the American Petroleum
Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.