Walking around the streets of Ottawa, I am often confronted by Garrett Brown crouching and looking serious on life-sized billboards. The ads – funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – proclaim that they have discovered ways to restore land used for oil sands extraction in years, now decades. Mr. Brown has put his name, face, and signature on these ads. He must think he is doing good. And yet, inescapably, I think he is aiding one of the most dangerous and immoral things happening in the world right now, namely the exploitation of the oil sands.
Garrett, I have some questions for you. How much land actually gets restored, and how much gets left as toxic wasteland? In the period before it gets restored, how many toxins and carcinogens leak into the Athabasca River? In the event that the government of Canada or Alberta tried to obligate oil sands producers to actually restore most or all of the land getting ravaged by oil sands extraction, don’t you think the CAPP would fight tooth and nail against that obligation? After all, it would reduce the profitability of the oil firms that fund the organization.
More importantly, do you really think land reclamation is the most important issue here? The CAPP advertising campaign is designed to make policy-makers and the general public think that industry is already on top of all the problems with oil sands extraction, and that improved technology and techniques will make turning bitumen-laden sand into usable fuels into a benign activity.
What about climate change? What do you think about the effect of the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Do you accept the basic physics and chemistry of the situation, which have been well understood for decades? Do you recognize how the oil sands are a gigantic store of carbon, and how your employers would be happy to add all of it to the atmosphere. What consequences would that have for future generations of people?
How can we impose that suffering on them, just so we can extend for a while the length of time during which our civilization is dependent on fossil fuels? How do you think your great grandchildren will feel when they see these ads?
Obviously, Mr. Brown feels strongly that oil sands extraction is an activity that deserves a public relations facelift. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have consented to have his name, face, and signature splayed across these ads. I wonder what evidence and logic supports his views. Perhaps he expects carbon capture and storage to make oil sands extraction compatible with climate stability. If so, he isn’t paying enough attention to how the emissions from the oil sands are ultimately dispersed among all the disparate vehicles that use the fuels. Perhaps he cares a lot more about short-term energy availability and economic robustness than about the long-term factors affecting human welfare. If so, perhaps he should reconsider his priorities.
Right now, it is clear that the forces of inaction are winning. Climate change policy is going nowhere in Canada, and internationally. To a large extent, that reflects how effective opposition from industry has been: sowing phony doubts about the science of climate change, while arguing that climate change action is sure to cause economic ruin (while climate change itself will not.) With these ads, Mr. Brown is helping CAPP perpetuate a dangerous status quo, in which the atmosphere continues to get more and more full of greenhouse gas pollution.
I would definitely like to have a conversation with Mr. Brown, asking about the motivation for his endorsement. In the absence of that, I can only conclude that he hasn’t been paying enough attention to the science, politics, and ethics of climate change. He has lent his name and reputation to the people undertaking one of the most dangerous and unethical things happening on Earth right now.