I was on hand last night at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver for the highly-touted debate between Best West, Healthy Communities Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, and Ezra Levant, author of the new book “Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.”
The event was a reprise of sorts of the recent throw-down in Calgary between Levant and Andrew Nikiforuk, author of “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.” Despite the rather serious subject matter at hand – the future of the Alberta Tar Sands, climate change, and the relative ethics of dirty oil – the events were enlivened with an air of theatre, replete with a Vegas Fight Night motif.
The Vancouver event was taken in by a nearly packed house – and the crowd got right into the action, often catcalling Levant, the clear antagonist of the evening. Early on, Levant used a pre-packaged but clever come-back to a heckler to introduce his basic thesis: “I love the heckling,” he told the crowd, “because it proves how free we are. If we were in Russia, you wouldn’t be heckling for long before the FSB came and got you.” He concluded, “That’s Canada: the fair-trade coffee of the world’s oil industry.”
Whether you agree with Mr. Levant’s argument – essentially that Alberta Tar Sands oil is the lesser of two evils when compared with the black stuff from Saudi Arabia or the Sudan – or not, he deserves some credit for walking into territory hostile to climate change denying, Milton Friedman-loving types. The “People’s Republic of East Van,” as it was introduced, is a long way from Fort MacMurray.
I was there more to see Levant than Ben West, a friend and colleague with whom my own views are naturally more aligned than his opponent, the Tar Sands apostle. I always appreciate good oratory – and Mr. Levant is certainly capable int that department – and I was curious to hear firsthand how he frames his defence of the Tar Sands.
Levant is a Calgary-educated lawyer and conservative political activist who founded the right-wing magazine and now exclusively online journal, The Western Standard. He has worked closely with Preston Manning and was the Conservative Party nominee for Calgary Centre who made way for Stephen Harper when he needed a solid riding in which to make his first Prime Ministerial bid. Event moderator and Georgia Straight reporter Charlie Smith elicited another round of theatrical boos for Levant when he pointed this out to the crowd in his introduction.
Throughout the evening, West, an able, witty debater himself, framed his opponent as some variation of a “hitman for the free market”. But when moderator Smith posed what I thought was the most important question of the evening – essentially what is the book and its author’s relationship with the oil lobby – Levant claimed none whatsoever. I too had been curious about this question. Having read a few reviews of Levant’s book, I couldn’t help but note the similarity in timing and message to the broad-based multi-million dollar co-ordinated PR offensive now underway to burnish the Tar Sands – or Oil Sands as they are careful to call them – by the industry and Alberta and Canadian governments.
I think beginning with National Geographic’s stunning front cover visual exposé of the Tar Sands not quite two years ago, the world’s biggest industrial operation has been getting pummeled on the image front, to the point it now sports a big shiner, apropos the evening’s fight theme.
This coordinated effort to fight back against a deluge of bad press has included a series of ads from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) featuring Tar Sands employees playing up technological advances and minimizing their employers’ environmental impacts. My favourite is the one where the Syncrude engineer walking through a sparse patch of four foot-tall poplars informs us his company has cleaned up something like 1,000 hectares of mining grounds (out of hundreds of thousands), before pausing for an impromptu moment of remediated wilderness magic: “Look – there’s two squirrels playing on that branch!” The squirrels are, naturally, off-camera – but we’ll take his word for it.
There have also been billboard ads in New York, paid for by the Alberta tax payer, that claim, “A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar; A great neighbour provides you with 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.” Finally, there’s the recent series of high-profile whirlwind junkets by top US lawmakers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all delivering the same message: “Hey, these Alberta Oil Sands ain’t that bad after all.” The whole offensive is based on two central themes: 1. Downplaying environmental impacts, partly by up-selling technological advancements; and 2. Assuring us Alberta oil is safer than Middle East, Venezuelan, and Sudanese Oil – from a national security perspective.
These two themes, particularly the last one, are also central to Levant’s schtick – which is why Charlie Smith’s question was warranted. Did Levant get paid to do this book by CAPP or Syncrude?
According to Levant, absolutely not. He got the idea for the book, he says, following a speech to a bunch of regular folks in Alberta, concerned about the same things this Vancouver crowd was – the environment, health, jobs. He found his right-wing business angle wasn’t connecting with them, so he thought he’d try again, on a level they could relate to.
He says he got paid $40,000 by publisher McLelland & Stewart and had no contact with the oil industry whatsoever during the writing of the book (which begs the question how he was able to conduct his research). Perhaps Mr. Smith should have posed a follow-up question: “Will you accept money from the oil industry in the future?”
Mr. Levant has four major criteria for judging the ethical quotient of a given oil source: the environment, peace and conflict, economic justice, and the treatment of minorities. For each of these categories, he scores the Tar Sands comparably higher than other major oil producing nations – as he explained in often colourful language:
The bastards, dictators, misogynists, and terrorists have the oil. The Saudis brought us 9/11. Iran is using their oil profits to build a nuclear bomb. We’re the only good guys…If you give a damn about women, gay people, aboriginal people (because the Tar Sands is their biggest employer), peace, and economic justice for working people, then you should support Alberta Oil.
As for concerns raised by West and members of the audience, Levant had pat, if not convincing, rebuttals for most. He downplayed the infamous duck fatalities in tailings ponds – “I eat 50 chicken wings on a Friday night at the pub.” Dr. John O’Connor, who rang alarm bells over the health of aboriginal people in Fort Chipewyan, was dismissed as “a liar.”
Levant’s also not a big believer in man-made climate change: “Anyone who knows there was an ice age – and knows we’re not presently in one – should be able to recognize that the earth warms and cools on natural cycles.” Touché.
Finally, to tell the world’s emerging economies, such as China, that they shouldn’t embrace oil-dependant car culture as we have is, in itself, “unethical.”
Ben West hit all the right notes with his response to Levant – and kept up in the theatre and humour department, not an easy task with Levant. His closing statement took the form of a poem, framed as an intervention: “Ezra, we brought you here because you have an addiction and we want to help you…”
Put on the spot, West focused on alternatives to oil – such as conservation, clean alternate energy technologies, electrified public transit, and walkable communities. He called for an end to oil and gas subsidies – which is one of the strongest arguments against these supposed “free market” guys. And he brought it down to a local level when he suggested British Columbians have an opportunity and a responsibility to deal with the Tar Sands by stopping two major pipelines from Alberta – the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat, and the proposed expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline to Vancouver. To this end, in his closing statement, Levant repeated his mantra, “If you kill the Enbridge pipeline, then you’re forcing China to get its oil from less ethical sources.”
Levant’s routine – regardless of his professed independence from the massive PR campaign to save the Tar Sands’ image – is basically a more entertaining, frank, and at times clever version of those CAPP commercials and Stelmach billboards.
It’s surprisingly unsophisticated and built upon a foundation of non-sequitur arguments…But George Bush got re-elected on a national security platform – a draft dodger running against a bona fide war hero, no less – after demonstrably lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Which goes to show you that arguments don’t need to be smart or true to work.
The fact is these people don’t have the benefit of a naturally good argument – so they must do the best with what they have. And on that front, I wouldn’t count them out. Any PR guru will tell you, pick a simple message and stick to it. And wherever possible, use fear as the primary motivator – you know, like Al Queda and Iranian nukes. Moreover, whether or not this argument works in Canada is less crucial than whether it works in the United Sates. And we’ve seen how effectively the “national security card” can be played there.
It will be interesting to see where the debate – and Levant, for that matter – goes from here. In any event, it made for an informative and entertaining battle at the Rio last night.