Why ‘ethical oil’ may be an own goal

Don’t tell him, but I think Ezra Levant’s whole ‘ethical oil’ concept might be a psychological own goal for the people trying to promote the unrestricted growth of Canada’s oil sands.

The intent of the campaign is to draw attention to ethical abuses connected to oil from sources outside Canada. For instance, the lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia. For people who are already convinced that Canadian oil is A-OK, the contrast between the appeal of buying oil from ‘good’ Canadian companies rather than ‘bad’ foreign companies or governments seems stark.

The reason why I think the slogan may be self-defeating is that by trying to draw attention away from arguments that Canadian oil is itself unethical, it reinforces the point that the choices we make about energy are ethical choices, not mere consumer choices. If you have come to accept buying fossil fuel as a perfectly ordinary part of life, with no more thought accorded to it than to buying a pack of gum or a bus token, seeing a blaring campaign about how Canada’s oil is ethical while oil from elsewhere is not may bring to mind the very arguments that the campaign is seeking to discredit.

Plenty of people are aware of how problematic our society’s dependence on oil is. They are also aware of the dubious business dealings and environmental damage associated with all oil companies, including those in Canada’s oil sands. Oil companies are bad neighbours. When operating normally, they produce air and water pollution that saturates the world with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals. When something goes wrong, they cause catastrophic accidents that end human lives and spoil large areas of nature. Their operations and product are also inescapably linked with climate change. They profit while the people downstream and downwind suffer.

Reminding people that oil is an ethical issue may end up encouraging those with a balanced view to make less use of it and search more energetically for alternatives. To put it briefly, the oil industry loses when oil gets discussed as an ethical matter; for them, it is much better when people see oil amorally as an essential enabler for things they value doing like driving cars and flying in airplanes.

One side note about ‘ethical oil’ – one of their standard photo ops is to get a couple of women to wear black body-covering garments in the style of a burqa in front of environmental protests. The people being photographed often have a sign suggesting that OPEC is pleased by environmental protests, since they restrict hydrocarbon development in North America and keep the continent dependent on imports. On one level, these protests seem like fair comment on the oppressive government policies in some major oil-producing states. At the same time, it seems possible that the intention behind the protest is to take advantage of xenophobic or anti-Muslim sentiment. Appealing to the moral sentiment that women should not be subjugated by their governments is one thing, but using Islamophobia to try to discredit your opponents is much less morally upright.

2 thoughts on “Why ‘ethical oil’ may be an own goal

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    Ethical Oil mum on donors, revenue, spending in first year

    The Ethical Oil Institute, a not-for-profit organization that aims to promote Canada’s oilsands industry, has filed its first return in Alberta without revealing anything about the money it raised or spent in the past year.

    As a private, non-profit corporation, the organization is not required to make public its donors, revenue or spending. But since its launch last year, Ethical Oil has made a campaign of questioning the fundraising practices of critical environmental organizations, many of which do publicly report donors.

    Jamie Ellerton, Ethical Oil’s executive director, said Tuesday the decision not to reveal how much money is raised or spent is an organizational one, based in part on the fact the organization does not receive government funding or tax breaks.

    “Our organizational policy is to accept donations from any Canadians and Canadian businesses, and we rely on the support of thousands of supporters from across the country ,” he said.

    “The fact that our organization’s been in existence and continues to receive that level of support speaks volumes to the work we’re doing.”

    Ethical Oil’s annual return, filed last month, assures its continued registration as a non-profit in Alberta. Whereas a public non-profit is also required to file an audited statement signed by chartered accountants – which includes a listing of cash and capital assets, revenue streams, and such expenses as advertising or staffing – private non-profits need only indicate shareholder information. Ethical Oil’s two shareholders remain Ezra Levant and Alberta lawyer Thomas Ross of the firm McLellan Ross.

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