That's the argument put forth by Ezra Levant in his new book entitled "Ethical Oil" where he compares Fort McMurray to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other oil rich parts of the world. His argument expressed in the Globe and Mail last week is that in comparison to a "fascist barrel from Saudi Arabia, a misogynist barrel from Iran and a dictatorial barrel from Venezuela", a barrel from Fort McMurray requires far less blood to be spilled. To Levant, that's how Canadians should sell the oil to countries like the US who have consistently argued for less dependence on oil coming from politically unstable and unethically oriented countries.
"Ethical Oil" does come across as oxymoronic when we consider the fact that systematic extraction of the oil from the earth's crust, regardless of its location, is unethical. The Star noted that recent studies on bird deaths in the oil sands were 30 times more impactful than what was previously estimated (official counts, by the way, were primarily based on oil company employees discovering dead birds). The Pembina Institute highlighted some of the significant environmental impacts, including “emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, surface water withdrawals, contamination and disruption of groundwater, toxic seepage from tailing lakes into groundwater, habitat fragmentation and impacts on wildlife”. According to the Institute, the problem is that while the Alberta government collects a reclamation fee, it is not based on any knowledge of what the potential costs might be throughout the life of the mine. Selling the oil sands as being the ethical source of oil seems illogical when we don’t have any systems in place to mitigate the true and accurate environmental impacts. Therefore, imposing taxes on future generations in the form of pollution and environmental devastation doesn't sound very ethical to me.
But the counter argument here, posited by Levant, is that avoiding the extraction of oil from this location is unethical because it would mean more support for repressive regimes while severely disrupting our economic and social wellbeing in the West. That sounds unethical as well. But using a relative comparison like this invites an equally valid response. If I were representing governments in other countries, I would respond by branding my oil as the ecologically efficient option in light of the fact that oil sands production requires 2 to 3 times more energy to produce oil than its crude oil counterpart. Both arguments are valid only because they are relative in nature (one is better than the other). This is akin to promoting Canadian landmines as being more ethical because they only kill in a 10 meter radius rather than a 20 meter radius and, in response, international governments arguing that the material used in their landmines is much less ecologically harmful than what is used in Canada. Notice that this diverts our attention away from the larger issue of having landmines in society at all. The private sector does this all the time when competing on which product is greener (relative to the original toxic one) even though all of them still cause major ecological harm. I’ll get back to this larger issue but for now, let me discuss how this debate speaks to how society would define sustainability.
This debate nicely shows that the question of whether oil sands are sustainable is left open to interpretation and judgment. If I’m a strong environmentalist, then I completely disagree with Levant’s argument. Yet, if I’m a human rights activist or an NGO working to curb oppressive regimes, I might agree with Levant’s perspective. To me, this variation in interpretation is a reflection of the challenge associated with achieving a “sustainable society” where balance between economic, social, and ecological dimensions is achieved. What is balanced is largely subjective, highly dependent on the perspective of a given stakeholder. One would argue then that the only way that we will achieve a sustainable society is if stakeholders representing different systems have equal power to voice their concerns, the product of which theoretically represents a balance of perspectives and systems. The problem of course is that power across stakeholders is by no means balanced. Recognizing this, powerful stakeholders work to preserve their power to make sure that their perspective carries more weight than others.
In my view, power to influence decisions has resided with too few stakeholders for the last several decades, which helps to explain today’s predicament. While I recognize that there are local and global social and economic consequences of moving away from oil production in Alberta, we have to step back and understand why we are so dependent on oil in the first place. Canada has made and continues to make economic decisions that lock us into an over-reliance on our non-renewable resources. The same can be said for international oil production where a small and very powerful elite has worked very hard to ensure world dependence on oil. So to suggest that moving away from oil has greater social and economic consequences than it does ecological is naïve and perhaps another strategy through which powerful elites aim to continue world dependence on this substance.