Opinion

Five Falsehoods About 'Ethical Oil'

ENERGY & EQUITY: Morality doesn't guide the crude brotherhood, never did.

By Andrew Nikiforuk, 29 Sep 2011, TheTyee.ca

Red oil barrels

Photo by ezioman via Flickr Creative Commons.

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Oil and ethics have never mixed. And never will.

The world's black gold (seven of the globe's wealthiest corporations are oil firms) has financed both left-wing and right-wing revolutions (from Hugo Chavez to Margaret Thatcher) polluted major watersheds from the Niger to the Mississippi, and undermined the role of government from Saudi Arabia to Louisiana.

The Big Rich from Texas' oil fields even bankrolled Senator Joe McCarthy's witch-hunts in the United States. The Wisconsin extremist was known as "the third senator from Texas." And that was before the Koch brothers and their oil wealth funded the "drill, baby, drill" Tea Party movement.

Governments that run on petro dollars (whether Christian or Muslim, democratic or tribal) also become obsessed with the resource and its pathological power arrangements. In the end they represent oil and its sweat-free revenues instead of ordinary citizens.

This fact partly explains Canada's carefully orchestrated campaign to rebrand its controversial bitumen as some kind of ethical product. Even though most oil sands companies produce oil from troubled petro states, the Canadian government is now attacking the globe's oil infrastructure to deflect attention away from its own dirt.

Canada's bombing campaign in Libya is also part of this crazy strategy. The destabilization of Libya will keep the global price of oil high and therefore improve the outlook for bitumen production, a marginal crude highly sensitive to oil price shocks. Canada's intervention has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with money.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney along with his former communications director, Tory activist Alykhan Velshi, have also attacked Saudi Arabia for its record on women. The Saudis, who got corrupted by oil long ago by U.S. oil companies, make an easy target. But when one group of Canadian petroleum extremists attacks another bunch of petroleum extremists and all to protect oil revenue for a highly secretive prime minister and a religious fundamentalist to boot, every Canadian should fear for the future of this country.

Petro state propagandists

The ethical oil campaign began with Ezra Levant, a political activist and lawyer with close ties to government. He even works in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's war room during elections. For the record, Levant is a former tobacco lobbyist and a convicted libeler. He is also a political extremist who has demanded the jailing of Greenpeace leaders. (Greenpeace, a civic organization with 3 million members, has poked fun of Alberta's one party petro state. The Saudis, by the way, fear transparency and accountability and don't like Greenpeace either.)

Levant has a Venezuelan peer: U.S. lawyer Eva Golinger. She attacks critics of Hugo Chavez's dysfunctional regime as decadent agents of U.S. imperialism just as Levant slanders environmentalists as demonic forces. Although the two lawyers represent different ends of the political spectrum, they play the same hysterical role in a petro state -- deflecting criticism away their inept rulers.

Now Levant's basic argument on ethical oil reads like a grade two primer: Canada is a good petro state and therefore heavy crude is good. Saudi Arabia is a bad petro state and therefore its light oil is conflicted. Buy Canadian crude.

Levant's time as a tobacco lobbyist makes him a compromised candidate to advance the ethical oil line. But Alykhan Velshi, another lawyer, resigned from government to push the ethical oil argument. Leaving government to promote Big Oil is now a Tory tradition. A couple of years ago Bruce Carson, Harper's top advisor, left Ottawa to coordinate pro oil sands propaganda with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta government. (Carson is now under investigation for unethical lobbying.)

Five falsehoods

Whether one supports rapid bitumen development or not (and the key issue is pace and scale) there are some big moral problems with ethical oil propaganda. Not only is the argument a Big Fat Lie, but these falsehoods sorely undermine the country's reputation abroad. It could also bring more trouble to the oil sands industry than its environmental critics. Saudi Arabia, for example, is well known for its lies and propaganda. But when Tory activists attack other oil exporters to defend a resource with true issues, well, Canada looks more and more like another pathetic petro state.

Furthermore, the so-called ethical oil argument is based on five bold falsehoods which bear some scrutiny:

Falsehood 1: Your local oil company. For starters, oil is a global commodity and every barrel is conflicted with blood, corruption or environmental degradation. As Daniel Yergin notes in The Prize, a lengthy history of oil, greed, power and money have always walked hand in hand with oil. (Ethics was never part of the crude brotherhood.) In addition every major oil sands producer pumps oil in petro states because of the money. Nexen produces in bloody Yemen. Suncor has billion-dollar investments in battle scarred Libya. Shell's oil interests literally turned Nigeria into a corrupt and polluted landscape. Total does business with Burmese dictators. The Chinese National Oil Company drills for gangsters in the Sudan. And on it goes.

Given Ottawa's new definition of ethics, there isn't a moral player in the tar sands. Should Canada do the moral thing and expel these firms so our oil can be produced by some non-existent race of pure oil companies? Perhaps when Levant, Velshi and Kenney call for the expulsion of these firms, we'll know they are really serious about ethics and not concerned about money for Tory coffers.

Falsehood 2: Oil island Canada. Half of Canada now depends on so-called conflict oil. It's more dependent on foreign oil than the United States. Every day Quebec and Atlantic Canada get their oil from places like Algeria, Venezuela, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The production of bitumen has not lessened eastern Canada's dependence on foreign oil by one barrel. If the world's most expensive hydrocarbon can't even displace so-called conflict oil in Canada, what difference can it make in global markets? But let's follow the extremist's advice, and boldly shut down half the country's energy supply in the name of petro ethics.

Falsehood 3: Ours is untainted by conflict. Bitumen is so damn thick that it won't move through a pipeline without being diluted with light oil. Much of this condensate comes either from the U.S. or the Middle East. EnCana has even imported conflict oil from Pakistan to dilute its bitumen. But condensate is in such short supply on the continent that most future supplies will come from the Middle East. The National Energy Board estimates that Canada will have to import 346,000 barrels a day from conflicted places by 2020 just to move the so-called ethical stuff. Perhaps Canadian philosophers will soon debate what happens when a nation mixes ethical oil with conflict oil? And what bloated Saudi-like bureaucracy should we create to discern these differences?

Falsehood 4: Perfectly Canadian. The idea that Canada walks the global stage without ethical problems is a grand right-wing Tory fiction and more petro hubris. (The Saudis say they are faultless too.) In plain truth we are a mining people with a lousy environmental record at home and a damn poor human rights record abroad. Our so-called ethical Canadian government even objected to a health-warning label for asbestos (how Saudi-like). Nor could they stomach a Responsible Mining Act. When the Canadian government takes up the stoning of foreign oil exporters, don't be surprised when global stones pass through our economic windows.

Every oil-exporting nation has to confront a raft of difficult ethical challenges that invariably come with oil wealth. They include fiscal accountability and saving one-time oil revenue for future generations. But Canada hasn't done that. Nor has Alberta. Battling the Dutch Disease and protecting the manufacturing and agricultural sectors from a high petro currency is another critical concern. Yet Canada just watches as oil exports hollow out the economy.

Falsehood 5: Oil profits make Canada stronger and better. Last but least, comes the corrosive influence of oil revenue on government policy and statecraft. Given our Saudi-like record on climate change (the Sheiks don't believe in global warming either) and the Harper government's ethical oil campaign, the money has already corrupted Canada's political institutions.

So oil and ethics don't mix. But Canadians will celebrate the day they do.

At that blissful moment the government of Canada will challenge the ethical record of oil sand investors such as totalitarian Communist China instead of its marginal oil competitors.

Just follow the money.  [Tyee]

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