“Ethical Oil”: Does geography matter?

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham

Photo Credit: Peter Essick

The phrase “ethical oil” went mainstream in Canada in 2010 after a national bestseller of the same name.  The book, written by Ezra Levant, a right-wing political activist and lawyer, gave this simplified primer: Canada is a friendly, secure petro state; Saudi Arabia and OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) are conflicted and undemocratic.  In other words, the opinion is that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and climate change aside, Canada’s oil is “ethical”.  Opinions aside, the International Energy Agency – a Parisian-based intergovernmental organization – states that depending on the region, Canadian oil is 5-10 per cent more GHG intensive than U.S. conventional fuel from extraction to combustion (well-to-wheel) (IEA, 2011).  Bradshaw (2010) recognises that globalisation, climate change, and energy security are intricately linked; he strives to explain why geography complicates the interaction of climate change and energy security. Bradshaw dubs this the ‘global dilemma’.  While the momentum of Levant and his ‘ethical oil’ campaign may have become distant memories, given the scope of climate change and energy security, it is worth reflecting on why it was paradoxical to rebrand Canadian oil, or any oil, as “ethical” in the first place.

Oil sands development constitutes Canada’s fastest growing source of CO2 because of the large amount of energy required to extract bitumen from sand.  Additionally, after accounting for the natural gas that powers the process of converting bitumen to crude and the removal of Boreal forest (a large carbon storehouse), Canadian tar sands oil can emit up to three times more GHG’s than conventional oil (Hatch and Price, 2008).  Despite plans to reduce emissions per barrel, with development scheduled to proceed, overall emissions will inevitably rise and the global issue of climate change could weigh heavily on Canada’s shoulders.

In March of 2017, President Trump gave an enthusiastic green light to the “incredible” Keystone pipeline.  This 1400 kilometre mile pipeline will transport up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude to Texas.  The State department said it considered foreign policy and energy security in making the approval.  This aligns with Levant’s argument that the world has a choice: embrace Canada’s peaceful, democratic oil or continue its dependence on OPEC’s dictatorship, conflict oil.  Levant, however, went further to suggest that the question of morality must encompass human rights issues independent of environmental costs.  In his mind, reliance on oil from dictatorships to “save modestly on greenhouse gases” was a misguided notion.  Many Americans and Canadians, however, would beg to differ – environmental costs do matter.

Levant, however, is no stranger to controversy and libel.  A former tobacco lobbyist, he is adept at weaving intricate webs.  His favourite spin in the oil debate was lambasting Saudi oil. Certainly a healthy dose of skeptisim and a critical eye is healthy in any society, yet when skeptics are given the same airtime as legitimate researchers, facts become blurred.

With Canada’s oil being celebrated and extolled, while simultaneously being criticized and decried, it is not surprising that Canadians can be confused about the dizzying array of incongruous oil sands reports.  As such, decisions and reformations must first be based on sound scientific assessments of the facts.  Consequently, the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) – Canada’s most prominent group of scholars and scientists, experts in their fields whom are peer-elected to receive this highest academic accolade and fellowship – published a peer-reviewed, comprehensive, 437-page evidence-based study of the oil sands in late 2010.

The report, while not as blasphemous as environmentalists would have liked, is certainly proof that Canada’s oil needs more than a rebranding makeover to be considered “ethical”.  The report concludes that “carbon capture and storage (CCS) does not appear to be a feasible option” and that increasing GHG emissions will create a major challenge for Canada to meet international commitments for overall emission reductions (Gosselin et al., 2010).

Fossil fuels, though intrinsically unsustainable, are the crown jewel of Canada’s multi-billion dollar energy sector.  But virtuous, ethical societies must aim to ultimately reduce oil consumption and pave the way for cleaner, renewable energy developments around the globe.  Additionally, ethical societies must conscientiously manage the resources they are entrusted with and devise coherent energy policies.  To date, North America lags behind the rest of the world in terms of energy efficiency and innovation.  Canada, with its enhanced regulatory oversight, can choose to perform ethically by embracing intergenerational thinking of a world beyond mere decades of oil.  Could some of Canada’s oil proceeds help pave the way toward a more sustainable future?  Regardless, it seems the words “ethical” and “oil”, though a clever marketing pitch, are not to be metaphorically mixed in the long-term interests of the planet or its people.



books_icon Bradshaw, M. J. (2010). Global energy dilemmas: a geographical perspective. The Geographical Journal176(4), 275-290.

60-world2 Gosselin, P., Hrudey, S. E., Naeth, M. A., Plourde, A., Therrien, R., Van Der Kraak, G., et al. (2010, December). Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry. Retrieved September 21, 2016, from The Royal Society of Canada: http://www.rsc.ca/documents/RSCreportcompletesecured9Mb_Mar28_11_000.pdf

books_icon Hatch, C., & Price, M. (2008). Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth. Toronto: Environmental Defence of Canada.

60-world2 IEA. (2011, April 13). Oil in the global energy mix: Climate policies can drive an early peak in oil demand. Retrieved July 2, 2017, from International Energy Agency: http://www.iea.org

books_icon Levant, E. (2010). Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart Ltd.

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