The “ethical oil” brand, dreamt up by Canadian fossil fuel apologists, promotes the concept that bitumen extracted from the tar sands is superior to all foreign oil. Although pitched as a matter of informed consumer choice, it really serves as an obstacle to efforts aimed at energy conservation and the transition to a sustainable, renewable energy paradigm.
The brand evokes the campaign to reduce the purchase of “conflict”or “blood” diamonds whose extraction or distribution supports violent warlords or repressive governments. The response was a system whereby diamonds are certified as “conflict-free”, coming from an upstream supply chain that doesn’t rest on or support massive human rights abuses.
There are movements in many other commodity markets for ethical or sustainable supply, whether organic or fair trade foods like coffee, chocolate, and bananas, or certified forest-friendly paper products, or sustainable fisheries. The key to each such initiative is that for suppliers to certify as ethical, sustainable, organic, or fair, they must continually act to improve their operations and reduce ancillary harms, and have those actions independently audited.
However, there is no such drive behind “ethical oil”. Tar sands companies have made no binding commitments to clean up their act and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste or spills. Instead, their only claim to being “ethical” is to point to other oil-exporting nations, branding their product as “conflict oil” and saying “well, they’re worse than us!” They make much of the sexist, violent, terrorist-sponsoring governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the socialist Chinese or Venezuelan regimes, and contrast them with how enlightened and ethical (and free-market) Canadians feel, in contrast. Besides the blatant xenophobia of such an approach, what should offend Canadians is how the tar sands are basically riding on our coat-tails in boasting of being “ethical” based not on their own record, but the virtue of the rest of Canada. But how does this industry fit within our own ethical system?
In all ways that matter, the bitumen industry is a drag on the rest of Canada’s ethical values. This industry has opposed environmental regulations and pushed to remove protections from the lakes, rivers, or species their operations threaten. Rather than create sustainable communities of workers, they separate men from their families and communities, mostly in the Maritimes, for weeks at a time, and pour money into their wallets. This is a recipe for domestic violence, prostitution, substance abuse, a widening rich-poor gap, and all kinds of other social ills. It is no coincidence that Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon, the 3 major cities serving the oil patch, are among the 5 worst Canadian cities for women to live, according to a recent report. While demonizing a few million dollars from foreign environmental charities, “ethical oil” ignores the billions of foreign dollars whose investment in our tar sands leaves our governments captured by foreign interests.
If these are the ethics our oil offers, then this industry is a corrupting influence on Canada as a whole, and rather than pretend that propping it up is somehow the ethical choice, we should put aside such silly distractions and concentrate on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels entirely, regardless of the source. Because when it comes to destroying our planet, damage is damage, regardless of how hard a destructive industry tries to pass itself off as “ethical”.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as " ' Ethical oil' brand doesn't exist"