‘Ethical oil’

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.

5 thoughts on “‘Ethical oil’

  1. Pingback: Why the oil sands are unethical

  2. .

    Former Jason Kenney staffer Alykhan Velshi is returning to Parliament Hill — this time as director of planning for the Prime Minister’s Office, CBC News has learned.

    Velshi was most recently executive director of EthicalOil.org, an organization set up to promote writer Ezra Levant’s take on Canada’s oilsands. While in that job, Velshi infamously debated actress Daryl Hannah over extending TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the U.S.

    Making the transition to the private sector can be difficult for political aides, especially after having the chance to influence public policy.

    Velshi worked for several years for Kenney, including during Kenney’s time as minister of citizenship and immigration, and worked for now-Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird when Baird was environment minister. He also worked for the Conservative Party during elections and was one of the main spokesmen during the 2011 election campaign.

  3. .

    Analysis: Kyoto withdrawal shames us all

    John Ibbitson

    The Harper government’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol tarnishes Canada before the world. Liberal and Conservative incompetence and mendacity are to blame. You and I are to blame. And Lehman Brothers had something to do with it as well.

    It isn’t easy for a country to descend, in the space of a single decade, from crusader to pariah, as Canada has done on the environment. But our political leaders were up to the task.

    The first, worst mistake occurred at Kyoto itself in 1997, when then prime minister Jean Chrétien told Canadian negotiators to meet or beat the American commitment, whatever it took. The problem was that while the American commitment was ambitious, Bill Clinton never expected the Senate to ratify that commitment, and he was right.

    The Liberals found themselves stuck with Draconian targets that, if met, would hobble oil sands production, hammer big industry in Ontario, and send home-heating bills through the roof. Their solution was to study the issue. And study. I remember sitting through an interminable briefing in 2003, in which officials patiently explained how Canada would meet its Kyoto targets. The only problem was that there was this enormous gap, which was to be closed through “future reductions.” It was like having a household budget in which Miscellaneous was bigger than Mortgage.

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