Sustainability is big in corporate America today. The word, that is. Once an arcane term used chiefly by foresters and agricultural researchers, "sustainable" has become the label of choice that executives use to describe their businesses.

Perhaps the most laughable of the newly sustainable corporations are the oil companies. Although they laud the tax incentives to encourage oil and gas exploration in the energy bill that Congress is expected to pass this week, they are continuing to spin the idea that what they do is somehow sustainable. Pumping a finite resource like oil out of the ground must be one of the least sustainable endeavors on the planet. But this doesn't bother the oil industry, which knows a powerful public-relations word when it sees one.

The most recent ConocoPhillips annual report has a section titled "Technology Achieving Long-term Sustainability," and the CEO writes of the company's "sustainable growth plan." Annual reports from ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil speak of "sustainable development." And BP and Shell issue reports on the sustainability of their operations. There are even auditors willing to vouch for the statements in these "sustainability" reports.