Cenovus Energy and the Metis

by Milan on March 22, 2011

in Economics, Ethics, Oil sands

In a situation similar to that of Inuit groups hoping to profit from oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, a recent deal between the Metis community of Conkin and Cenovus Energy promises to give the community a financial stake in oil sands development:

The deal with Cenovus Energy Inc. will give the 300 members of the community benefits worth an estimated $40-million to $60-million over 40 years tied to the growth of oil production from nearby projects — a form of royalty because the more the company produces, the higher the benefits.

The agreement — the details of which Cenovus wants to keep secret, but the community wants to tell everyone about — marks a major win for aboriginal communities seeking to reap long-term benefits from escalating oil-sands activity that is impacting their environment and way of life.

While the community may see the deal as adequate compensation for any environmental harms they themselves will suffer, it does not take into consideration the harms that climate change resulting from oil sands extraction will impose on people in future generations all over the world.

While economic development in First Nations communities is definitely an important issue, members of such communities have no more of a moral right than anybody else to impose harms on others in order to secure financial gains for themselves. Particularly given how the size of the payments depends on the level of production from the oil sands operation, there is a clear conflict of interest here between the people receiving the payments and the people who will suffer most of the harm from the extraction and use of these fossil fuels.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 23, 2011 at 12:37 am

“members of such communities have no more of a moral right than anybody else to impose harms on others in order to secure financial gains for themselves.”

I’m uncomfortable about you telling the victims of colonization about what their moral rights are. I don’t disagree with you on your own terms, but I think this issue requires a care and understanding of a genocidal settler colonial history which you don’t demonstrate a willingness to deal with with or adequately confront. Therefore, I think you’d be better off leaving Metis and First Nations alone – there are plenty of white devils to criticize.

Milan March 23, 2011 at 7:41 am

One potentially relevant factor is poverty, as with Henry Shue’s distinction between ‘sustenance’ emissions which are necessary for survival and ‘luxury’ emissions which are optional.

Arguably, especially poor communities have more of a moral right to harm others to improve their own circumstances than richer communities do.

That being said, I do think communities like this one need to bear in mind the harms that burning fossil fuels impose on large numbers of other people. The fact that they are receiving compensation doesn’t mean that this oil sands extraction operation isn’t imposing uncompensated harm on large numbers of other people.

Milan March 23, 2011 at 7:42 am

It also seems possible that First Nations communities will be more receptive to moral arguments about their choices than some other entities, such as energy companies.

Tristan March 23, 2011 at 9:17 am

An importnat question is – was the deal signed with community support with informed consent. I.e., was the community given a real understanding of the long term effects both on its local environment, and on the climate as a whole, from the project? I think the chances of this happening are approximately zero, and yet, they are in a sense required for the deal to be considered morally valid.

There is the question of willful blindness – what did the community not know but could have found out, but I think it is more productive to talk about the deception of oil firms rather than the failures on the part of a poor community to fully research the impacts.

I think the most important responsibility for us to talk about here is – why is the community poor? What land did they originally occupy, how was it taken from them, what happened to their culture and language during the residential schools genocide, and what are the lasting effects of colonialism on their ability to exist as a vibrant and well thinking decision making community?

Milan March 23, 2011 at 9:27 am

It would be awfully inconsistent to say that everybody except First Nations groups ought to leave the oil sands buried, but that First Nations groups are free to profit from them in assiciation with energy companies.

Members of First Nations groups, like everyone else, need to consider the impacts their choices will have on other people, particularly in terms of costs and risks that are being unilaterally imposed.

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