"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.

Jennifer Grant
Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant was the Pembina Institute's associate regional director for Alberta and the North until 2013, and former director of the Institute's oilsands program.


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