The Tyee: Unethical to Brand Oil Sands Ethical?

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From the Tyee.ca – Feb 10, 2011

by Colin Campbell and Andrew S. Wright

Ezra Levant’s powerful but critically flawed argument
re-branding Alberta‚Äôs oil sands as “ethical” appears to be re-shaping
Canadian public policy as Prime Minister Harper and Environment Minister
Peter Kent adopt the catch phrase — despite both ministers having not read
the original work. As the catch phrase “ethical oil” enters the lexicon
of Canadian political language, the need for a productive facts-based
debate in Canada, a debate leading to real conservation solutions,
appears to be more urgent than ever.

This is especially true in British Columbia
where candidates in the Liberal party leadership race have
systematically failed to embrace discussion of environmental and
conservation policies as an integral part of their policy platform
offerings.

Critical debate is important because
arguments that the oil sands contain almost half the world’s total known
oil reserves and will therefore ensure world peace, global food and
energy supplies for the next half century are dangerously flawed.
Current oil sand production of two million barrels a day is technically
limited by water availability to approximately a maximum of five million
barrels a day, a mere fraction of the world’s daily consumption. This
misrepresentation promises economic stability yet ignores global (peak)
oil supply concerns, the technical upper limit of oil sand production,
and climate change. Alberta’s oil sands development will not deliver
global economic stability in the face of these issues.

Pipelines that import risk

At risk is our often forgotten dependency
on the services of healthy natural systems which are as important as
economic benefits, and in ignoring this reality the first of many
weaknesses of the argument is exposed. In examining the benefits of the
proposed Enbridge pipeline to Kitimat, consider the grizzly bear family,
photographed in an estuary not 10 kilometres from the proposed west
coast tanker route that penetrates the heart of the Great Bear
Rainforest. This area provides many valuable food-based sustainable jobs
in the salmon, halibut and shellfish fisheries. An accident comparable
to the Exxon Valdez spill or the Gulf of Mexico eruption in these
treacherous waters would render this estuary and the ecosystems that
support rich wild fisheries in the region fallow. The “at risk” grizzly
family is a metaphor for our own lives. Pipelines in these pristine
environments import risk for which there is no insurance — just the
cost of desecration.

Levant’s notion of ethical oil involves
little more than choosing “to buy oil from nice guys”. It comforts us by
redirecting our judgment to the dealer and away from the consequences
of the deal that we are making. It is not this simple. If an oil source
is to be judged as ethical, then the list of considerations made must
include its long term greenhouse gas emissions, contributions to ocean
acidification, the rate at which a major watershed is made toxic and the
cumulative impacts on future generations. We should also consider
buying preferentially from nations that use their oil revenues to
develop renewable energy sources.

Furthermore the arguments’ rudimentary moral appraisal implies no
framework in which oil from sources with the lowest carbon footprint are
utilized first, their revenues applied to fuel switching strategies,
thereby deferring the worst oil for last use (hopefully never). Until
means to accurately measure and compare the virtues of oil source A
versus oil source B are developed we must ask the question, is it
unethical to brand Alberta’s oil sands as ethical?

Levant’s thesis assumes that we must
continue to use oil, ignoring the environmental impacts and offers
permission to proceed by establishing the good character of the vendor.
This massive (unethical?) distraction is compelling because human nature
will seek an honorable reason to avoid resolving a pressing problem and
the hard endeavor of seeking progressive solutions.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.