There is probably no more controversial environmental issue in Canada than the oil sands. Some people see them as an important basis for Canadian influence and prosperity. They see Canada as a safe alternative to countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and see how Canadians (especially Albertans) can profit from that. Others look at the oil sands as evidence of humanity’s dangerous addiction to fossil fuels.
Like most addicts, people in general have resolved themselves to the harms that accompany their habit, in terms of things like oil spills and air pollution. The real reason why the oil sands are unethical is because of how exploiting them ignores Canada’s responsibilities. We have a moral obligation not to wreck the planet, and to pass on a country and a global environment that will allow people in future generations to have good lives. Exploiting the oil sands is fundamentally incompatible with dealing with climate change. The exact same fact that makes the oil sands exciting for some people – the size of the fossil fuel reserve – is what makes them dangerous for everybody. If we dig up and use those fuels, the carbon they contain will inevitably end up in the atmosphere. The consequence of that will be further warming a planet that has already been dangerously warmed, from the perspective of coastal areas and small islands, and which is on track to be dangerously warmed for everybody. Exploiting unconventional fossil fuels also prevents us from developing alternatives. Inevitably, we need to move to safer and more reliable forms of energy. Choosing to invest in the oil sands instead is a waste of our talent and resources. It is an investment in a hopelessly outdated industry, which saps our ability to invest in the industries of the future.
In continued with full-speed-ahead development, Canada is also ignoring our responsibilities to the international community. Dealing with climate change requires cooperation and some degree of mutual sacrifice. Firms in other jurisdictions will inevitably point to the laggard countries as reasons why they themselves should not be regulated. Furthermore, we cannot expect states like China or Kuwait to behave ethically when rich, democratic states like Canada – states that should know better – are selling out the welfare of future generations and of people around the world, driven by greed and selfishness. Canada’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol was one of many factors that has derailed international efforts to deal with climate change. That being said, Canada can still do the right thing and pledge to make a fair contribution to the reduction in global pollution that is necessary. In order to do that, we need to move from a trajectory of higher and higher fossil fuel production and accompanying pollution to a trajectory where both are winding down.
These moral arguments are something Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to hear, along with Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis. It’s also something the opposition leaders need to be reminded about. Too often, the opposition just uses the environment as a club to try to beat the government with. They frequently fail to display integrity by openly supporting policies that would actually help deal with the problem: policies like putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, and restricting the production and use of fossil fuels. The ethics of oil sands production are also something the civil service needs to consider. While their role is to act as non-partisan sources of expert advice, they nonetheless have an obligation to point out when Canada is following a destructive and immoral course of action. To ignore injustice is to be complicit in it. Regulators need to take greenhouse gases seriously as a form of pollution, and the courts need to take the legal implications of climate change into account when rendering their judgments.
You may say that it isn’t greedy to chase profit during times of economic weakness, but that depends on how many people you are hurting along the way. The greenhouse gas pollution produced from oil sands operations (and from burning the fuels that they produce) will alter the climate for thousands of years. If all the people who will live during that time had a say – politically or economically – they would be clamouring for us to keep Pandora’s Box closed and leave these fuels underground. They would be willing to pay us more to leave the fuels buried than people are willing to pay us now to dig them up. Unfortunately, the members of those future generations are silent and defenceless; they do not enter into our political or economic calculations. Because we are only paying attention to the dollars and votes that can be collected today, we are investing hugely in an undertaking that destroys rather than creates human welfare. We are being short-sighted, greedy, and indifferent to the suffering of others. It should stop.