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Deconstructing "ethical oil"

When I stumbled across the site EthicalOil.org recently, I thought there was a small chance that it was a parody. And, it turns out that the site reads like a parody in some places even though I am certain that the owners are dead serious.

You see, the site is a defense of the Canadian oil sands industry. The argument it makes is that because human rights standards are much better in Canada than in many other oil exporting nations, Canada should be considered a more "moral" source of oil. In fact, the oil from the oil sands is touted as a "fair trade choice."

Once I'd read through the site, it was hard to imagine why the oil sands industry would even want it online. If these people were working for me with the express mission of defending the oil sands, I would fire them. Let me explain why.

First, the site claims to be based on a book called Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands. At the bottom of the EthicalOil.org home page the book is described as follows:

In Ethical Oil, Levant [the author] turns his attention to another hot-button topic: the ethical cost of our addiction to oil. While many North Americans may be aware of the financial and environmental price we pay for a gallon of gas or a barrel of oil, Levant argues that it is time we consider ethical factors as well.

I am certain you are now scratching your head thinking you could do a better job of arguing the case than that. Since when, I hear you saying, did things financial and environmental stop being moral issues? That's strike one.

But the embarrassment has only begun. A set of rotating stories under "Featured News" includes a photo of two burka-clad females in front of the White House holding a hand-lettered sign which says "Stop tar sands, Stop Canada, Americans4OPEC.com." This strange scene seems contrived, and it is. The accompanying text reads as follows:

Americans4OPEC: Blame Canada!
Earlier today, I snapped a few photos of Americans4OPEC, which today joined the anti-Keystone XL protests outside the White House. Here’s one of the photos and the group’s press statement. You can visit their website at Americans4OPEC.com

Americans4OPEC statement (sic), which is available on their website:

"For more than 40 years, we Americans have powered our businesses, fueled our cars, and made our lives more comfortable with the help of OPEC oil. We think that special relationship is worth protecting..."

This is the site's attempt at satire (and it's also intentionally misleading). After reading the story or clicking through to the Americans4OPEC site, if you haven't figured out that the burka-clad protesters aren't real and that this is a satire, a note in small type at the bottom (if you make it that far) will tell you that "Americans4OPEC is not a real organization, but a satire created by EthicalOil.org to highlight the choice Americans now have."

Okay, in order for a satire to work, you don't really want to tell the reader up front that what he or she is reading is a satire. You want the reader to figure this out; it's part of the fun. On the other hand, a satire, to be effective, really ought to be funny. This one isn't. Strike two!

Far more insidious is the confusion this site sows about the label "ethical." We might consider the mere purchase of certain products or services as unethical. Or we might consider the conditions under which a product is grown, mined, manufactured, or traded, or a service rendered as unethical.

For example, we might consider the purchase of African ivory as unethical. (It also happens to be illegal.) We might also consider it unethical to eat bluefin tuna--which is highly prized in raw fish dishes such as sushi--because the species has declined so much due to overfishing.

However, we don't say that the purchase of coffee is in and of itself unethical. We now sometimes say that the terms of trade for the coffee growers is often unfair and therefore unethical. And, this accounts for the growth of fair trade certified coffee. The feeling is that the grower ought to get more of the proceeds from his or her coffee than international trade arrangements and powerful food companies have provided in the past.

Obviously, the argument being made by EthicalOil.org is that Canadian oil from the oil sands is more ethical because of the conditions under which it is produced which exhibit higher concern for human rights than in many other exporting countries. And, now we see why the authors of the site do not wish to talk about environmental aspects of the oil sands. Because to do so would force us to include the first ethical category in our discussion: namely, whether it is moral for us to consume increasing amounts of oil or even any at all given the implications for pollution and climate change.

But let's accept for a moment that we should limit our discussion to the relative human rights records of various regimes which export oil. If we buy oil from Canada, or at least refined products made from oil produced in Canada, should we feel better about ourselves? Not particularly, would be my answer. The key fact about tradable oil is that it is fungible. It can be moved virtually anywhere in the world. If we don't buy oil from Saudi Arabia or any of the other regimes thought to be inimical to human rights, those regimes will simply sell their oil to someone else. None of it will go to waste.

The only way those regimes might be penalized is if total consumption worldwide slumped, driving prices down. But this would force us back onto the first ethical category: namely, that the most moral thing we could do is simply to consume a lot less oil. Naturally, the supporters of the site do not want to discuss this logical conclusion of their argument. (The site, however, unwittingly mentions conservation in one paragraph as a means to wean America off OPEC oil. So, the authors are unconsciously aware that reducing overall consumption is really the only way to reduce the perceived evils associated with oil use including that of rewarding oil-exporting regimes having poor human rights records.)

The argument for using less oil overall is simply rejected in the book upon which the site is based. Here's the conclusion to that book (available on Amazon for those who want to check it out without buying the book):

The world isn't throwing out the internal combustion engine anytime soon. In fact, in countries like India, China, and Brazil, the world is buying more cars than ever. So we're stuck with oil for a long time, whether we like it or not. The only question that remains is: if we have to produce oil, and we have to buy oil--and we absolutely must do both--whose oil should we do our best to support? Who can we trust to do it the most morally?

There can be no doubt: Canada does it best. We're an energy superpower. And we're an ethical superpower too, setting international standards for how we treat the environment and how we treat each other. And if our goal as moral citizens is to make the world a better place, then there is only one choice: to pump as much oil as we possibly can out of Fort McMurray. Pump and steam and dig and drill and get that oil out of the sand in any and every way we can. Every drop of oil from Alberta is one less drop from some fascist theocracy, or some brutal warlord; one less cent into the treasuries of Russia's secret police and al-Qaeda's murderers.

Canadian oil sands oil is the most ethical oil in the world, and the people who invest there, work there, and support the oil sands with their patronage and their encouragement should be proud. Whether they realize it or not, they are all, gradually, helping to make the world a more moral, humane, and better place.

Think about it. The action that will be the most moral is "to pump as much oil as we possibly can out of Fort McMurray." This is only moral if you limit your moral evaluation to the relative human rights records of oil exporters. Otherwise, it isn't. And, you must ignore the necessity of bringing down consumption worldwide to really force any pain on the aforementioned egregious exporters. This is hardly a compelling case. Strike three!

(There's actually a lot more to amuse you or befuddle you with its ineptitude on the EthicalOil.org site if you have the necessary inclination.)

While unlocking the oil in the oil sands is most certainly the carbon bomb for our atmosphere that its opponents say it is, to be fair, so is every other source of carbon fuel, including sources for supposedly "clean" natural gas. It is not so much that the Canadian oil sands are better or worse than other sources of fossil fuels, but rather that their exploitation is made inevitable by the way we live. If we don't like the oil sands, then we must build a society that does not require their exploitation. This is doable with the technology we have (but perhaps not with the politics we have). The originator of the "ethical oil" argument, however, tells us that it will be impossible to build such a society until very far into the future. He is wrong--dead wrong, I would say.

If this is the argument upon which "ethical oil" rests, then it is one of the most unethical arguments ever made. Believing such an argument or using it cynically to deceive others may condemn us to catastrophic and irreversible climate change. And, it will also prevent us from preparing for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels--a transition that may be forced upon us in the not-too-distant future.

Now how's that for ethics?

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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