The absurd ’moral superiority’ of tar sands oil

By Bryan Walker 31/07/2011

In a rational world the notion that Canadian tar sands oil is ‘ethical’ by comparison with oil from many other sources would be laughable. But I wrote earlier this year that the Canadian Conservation Minister Peter Kent used the term with some emphasis in his defence of the tar sands operation. This week I read that it’s now being vigorously promoted through a website  launched by  Alykhan Velshi, a neocon lawyer who until recently was  the communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. He was also an important part of the Conservative Party election campaign operation.

Leo Hickman in the Guardian article which drew my attention to the website remarked that considering his tender age (he’s 27) Velshi seems to be remarkably well-versed in the dark arts of spin and misdirection. As Hickman describes, the website divides oil producing countries into goodies and baddies.

’Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries. Some Conflict Oil regimes even support terrorism.’

The same logic is applied to the environmental concerns surrounding tar sands oil:

’In an ethical country like Canada, we obviously take the environment a lot more seriously than the Chinese regime does: it’s why we hear so much concern about the oil sands carbon footprint from NGOs, politicians and in the media. You won’t hear nearly as much criticism in China, or Venezuela, for that matter. The fact that Canadians care so much about the planet – and that we have the freedom to express our concerns – is one of the many reasons that we know Canada is a more ethically minded country than most.’

The question of the emissions level of the operation is virtually dismissed by the claim that emissions associated with the extraction of the oil total just over one-hundredth of one percent of all the greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere.

There’s no specific climate change denial involved. The site speaks often of the need to reduce carbon footprint, and claims that the extraction methods being developed on the tar sands do exactly that. But there’s also no questioning of oil mining per se. It appears to be taken for granted that mining and burning oil can go on unhindered by concerns about what the burning of that oil will mean for greenhouse gas concentrations. Not that Velshi is out of line in such a view, which seems to be shared by many of the world’s governments. Few of them seem prepared to eschew oil exploration and mining. Gross though the promotion of the Alberta oil sands is on this website, it’s hardly out on a limb in the broad scheme of oil exploitation.

I hold no brief for Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record the website attacks. But the real issue is not where oil is produced but whether we should be pursuing it to the last drop before we turn away from using it at all. Common sense tells us to stop as soon as we possibly can. The advocates of tar sand extraction and deep sea drilling tell us there’s no hurry, and the companies involved make ever greater profits while we delay.

It’s absurd to describe any oil as ethical. We may have to go on using it for a while yet but we should do so with reluctance and with determination to replace it with renewable energy sources as quickly as we can. The more of it we can leave in the ground the better. Perhaps that’s the one kind of oil that could legitimately be called ethical.