Myth: “Canadian Oil and Gas is more ethical"
Myth: “Canada should continue to develop the oil sands because the oil produced here is more ethical than the oil produced in some other countries.”
This narrative, often referred to as simply ‘ethical oil,’ can largely be attributed to Ezra Levant and his 2010 book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. The argument the book presents can be summarized as Canada and its oil industry should be encouraged to produce more oil as Canada is a more ethically and morally sound country than other, less progressive ones. Countries “like Saudi Arabia, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela” are prone to human rights abuses and poor environmental standards and accordingly are producing what Levant refers to as ‘conflict oil,’ or oil that is less ethically sound. In recent years, this narrative has become widely used and accordingly is creating opposition to the transition away from fossil fuels. While on the surface the idea of ‘ethical oil’ makes sense, there are in fact numerous flaws with the concept.
For one, while Canada is arguably more ethical than other oil-producing countries, the oil companies actually developing the oil sands are not. Many of them also operate within the same countries that Levant and others condemn. Accordingly, Canadian oil is rendered less ethical by the less-than-ethical companies producing it.
Second of all, while Canadian oil is produced conflict-free, Canada doesn’t just use its own oil and instead relies heavily on oil from ‘conflict countries.’ Much of Eastern Canada is heavily reliant on oil imports from countries like Saudi Arabia as there are currently no pipelines that can transport enough Albertan oil out East to meet demand. As well, the Canadian oil industry is dependent on ‘conflict oil.’ Canadian bitumen is very thick and so it needs to be mixed with lighter oils that will make it flow more easily through pipelines. Much of this lighter oil is imported from ‘conflict countries,’ as well as from the United States. As Canada continues to use ‘conflict oil,’ it will continue to support those conflicts. Canada can not claim to be more ethical if it continues to use the very product it calls unethical.
Third of all, the argument that Canada is a more ethical country is a problematic one. While Canada is not as prone to human rights abuses and poor environmental standards as the ‘conflict countries’ Levant has identified, Canada is far from perfect. This country has seen a long history of oppression, injustice and environmental destruction. While the situation has arguably improved over the years, Canada is still prone to unethical conduct and accordingly should not consider itself the moral superior of other countries.
Finally, one can argue that continuing to develop the oil sands isn’t entirely ethical either. Extracting, processing and transporting oil from the Albertan oil sands produces a large amount of Green House Gases (GHG’s), which will only continue to exacerbate climate change. With severe climate change comes severe consequences. For example, the World Health Organization predicts that climate change will directly lead to approximately 250,000 deaths between 2030 and 2050 due to disease, malnutrition, and heat stress. This is in addition to the 12.6 million that will die every from preventable poor environmental conditions that climate change will only exacerbate. While one must also acknowledge that oil does provide benefits to both Alberta and the world, the negative impacts on health and the environment arguably make oil production ethically complicated.
Ultimately, the idea of ethical oil is a flawed narrative and one that runs counter to Alberta’s transition away from fossil fuels. The ethical oil narrative argues for expanding the Canadian oil industry while failing to discuss the negative outcomes associated with such an expansion. Regardless of whether or not Canada’s oil is more ethical, this will not prevent the need to transition away from fossil fuels in the coming years.
[Cover image is the cover of the book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands]