Blog Posts | Pembina Institute

"Ethical oil" argument attempts to camouflage serious problems in the oilsands

Blog - Jan. 7, 2011 - By Jennifer Grant

Freshly minted Environment Minister Peter Kent made no apologies for the oilsands' environmental record when speaking with media outlets including the Globe and Mail and CBC's Evan Solomon this week, calling the industry "ethical in every sense of the word."

It's a familiar argument, drawn from the playbook of Conservative pundit Ezra Levant — and a classic case of the rhetorical device called bait-and-switch.

The "ethical oil" argument would have Canadians forget all about the serious and so far unresolved negative impacts of unrestrained development of the oilsands, and ask ourselves instead whether Canada's system of government is better than Saudi Arabia's or Iran's. 

Of course it is — but that only means Canada is better equipped and has even more responsibility to address the unresolved social, economic and environmental implications of oilsands development.

Arguments focusing on the ethics of Canada's oil production downplay the impacts on wildlife and a number of other serious issues.

Those impacts have been well documented, most recently in a number of reports from reputable bodies including the Royal Society of Canada and the federal environment commissioner. As we've noted in past blogs, they raise serious questions about the environmental regulation of the oilsands, the monitoring of potential impacts on water resources, the availability of data and a lack of transparency. In our view, the time of the federal Environment Minister would be better spent supporting strong policies to address those issues, rather than calling for less criticism.

Undoubtedly, there are serious ethical issues around the dependence on oil from foreign sources that shelter corrupt governments and enable ongoing human rights abuses. But there are also serious ethical issues here at home.

Take for instance the federal government's current lack of regulations, which allow oil companies to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gas pollution, leaving others to suffer the consequences. Or consider the unaccounted environmental and economic liabilities of billions of dollars facing our children from oilsands companies underreporting their reclamation costs, the absence of any federal savings plan from oilsands wealth, the predicted loss of caribou from the region, the inadequate consultation with First Nations, and the sacrifice of a competitive manufacturing sector from an overheated dollar. There is no shortage of unethical impacts from oilsands development that the some critics conveniently overlook.

The oilsands encroach on the Boreal Forest, one of the world's most significant forest ecosystems. Photo: David Dodge, the Pembina Institute.

Rather than distracting Canadians with a debate over the ethics of resource extraction, the minister ought to focus on doing his job — which remains, as we understand it, ensuring Canada's environment is protected. This involves coming up with a plan to cut greenhouse gas pollution from all sectors, and finally putting strategies in place to protect air, water, species at risk and the best interests of all Canadians from the negative impacts of rampant development of the oilsands.

No matter where it's happening, extracting oil from the ground and burning it for energy comes at too high a cost for us not to be investing substantially in the clean energy alternatives that are readily available. Canada stands to benefit more from ensuring that ongoing oilsands extraction is happening at a pace that's responsible, and is managed in a way that minimizes harm, while investing in energy solutions that help all Canadians prosper — not just today, but into the future. That would be ethical energy development.

David J. Parker — Jan 15, 2011 - 06:22 PM MT

Common sense it may be. Sadly very uncommon.
It won't be the first time that an elite group has, for their own perceived benefit, taken away the lives of others.
Unfortunately today the power to destroy has grown exponentially and we all get caught up in the fallout.

Roger Gagne — Jan 07, 2011 - 05:07 PM MT

Edmontonian Satya Das, author of "Green Oil", argues that in order to be ethical, the oilsands need a commitment to best practices, to honesty (like Suncor's leadership stance in admitting they have leakage from their tailing ponds), and they need to be used deliberately in a transition to a cleaner energy future including conservation, efficiency, and renewables.

Here he is debating Ezra Levant at Edmonton's LitFest:

Rob B — Jan 07, 2011 - 04:28 PM MT

Thanks for this post Pembina. I'm really blown away by how this "ethical oil" argument is so out of touch with reality.

What I also find disturbing in Ezra Levant's message is its lack of factuality and also its racism. The lack of factuality being summed up by transnational collaboration between Middle Eastern and North American oil industries. Obviously, a significant number of Canadian and US expats work over in the Saudi oil industry. I believe I also saw some figures (which I will try to retrieve in the near future) about training Alberta workers over there. If the regime is so evil, why do we proceed with this collaboration? So, you can't totally separate us into an Eastern and a Western regime of oil and I'm sure my example is just scratching the surface.

The other thing is that, even if we max out oilsands/tarsands development, we're still importing a significant amount of oil from the MIddle East. Since we can't shut off the tap completely, the whole "ethical oil" argument becomes self-defeating — funds are still going to "regimes" that are problematic. Why, we could ask, would we not just develop alternative sources of fuel?

The racism of Levant's book is in the presentation of Canada as this fully three-dimensional country with all kinds of people, full of conflict between different kinds of people who want to expand or restrict freedoms, but Saudi Arabia is not — implying that when you buy imported oil, all the revenue is going directly to the Official Fund to Behead Women and every single person is dancing in the street when it does. But obviously there are individuals and organizations there trying to press for more freedoms. When those organizations call for a boycott, and have a strategy to win that we can actually participate in, maybe that can happen. Until it does the unilateral boycott is just another imperial gesture.

Of course, that also presents Canada's wider society as free of problems. I'm not sure if how I've presented Levant's book is literally how he presents his arguments (when I get a moment I am going to read the first bit of it because I think it deserves a full critique), but I've watched Ezra Levant debate and this is definitely what he implies.

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