Ezra Levant has introduced a powerful new soundbite into Canadian politics – the idea that fuels derived from the oil sands are ‘ethical oil’ because the people who profit from them are less objectionable than the government of Venezuela or the regimes of the Middle East.
As I mentioned in a letter to Canada’s new environment minister, there is some validity to this argument. I would rather the profits from the fuel I use go to the government of Alberta than to the House of Saud. That being said, the idea that fuels from the oil sands are ‘ethical’ when taken all in all is simply indefensible. Indeed, that idea seems to be reflective of a problematic perspective on the environment that has become very widespread: the tendency to accept the fact that something is better than its alternatives in a single narrow way as an overall endorsement of that thing. Increasingly – and especially when used by government and businesses – the words ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ simply mean ‘better than the worst thing in the world’.
Another defence of ‘ethical oil’ runs along similar lines. Advocates argue that producing it is only a little bit worse than producing conventional oil, from an environmental perspective. I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is true or not. Even if it is true, however, exploiting the oil sands remains horribly dangerous for humanity. This is because the amount of climate change the planet experiences depends fundamentally on the total quantity of fossil fuels we burn, and what quantity we choose to leave unused and underground. Burning up the oil sands isn’t something humanity is doing as an alternative to burning conventional oil. Rather, it is something we are doing in addition to burning conventional oil. That means oil sands exploitation inescapably increases the total quantity of greenhouse gas pollution humanity will produce and, by extension, just how dangerously we will alter the climate.
The world’s scientists and politicians have basically agreed that if we warm the planet to more than 2°C above where it was prior to the Industrial Revolution, we will be endangering humanity. Avoiding that level of increase will be very hard. If we were to just keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution at the same rate as we are today, we would almost certainly cross the 2°C threshold well before 2100, with more warming afterward. If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to dramatically reduce global pollution by choosing to leave more and more fossil fuels underground. Exploiting the oil sands is the very opposite of the strategy we need to follow.
When we burn fossil fuels, we knowingly and intentionally impose harm on future generations. Sufficiently severe climate change would threaten the ability of nations to hold together, drown important cities, destabilize agriculture, and cause enormous suffering. All of those outcomes are made much more likely through the exploitation of the oil sands, as well as the more general exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves. Because of that, the oil sands do not produce ‘ethical oil’. Rather than digging up those fuels and extending North America’s fossil fuel addiction, we should leave them buried and invest our knowledge, abilities, and resources in the development and deployment of truly ethical energy sources like wind, solar power, and geothermal energy.