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Loose ethics about Canadian oil

Earlier this week, I saw a short article about a series of posters designed to convince people that oil from Canada’s tarsands/oilsands (pick your term based on whether you are pro- or anti-oil) is “ethical.” That article has a nice slideshow that displays all of the posters.

The designer, Alykhan Velshi, who at one time worked for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, was apparently inspired by a book titled “Ethical Oil.” The basic idea is that, instead of buying oil from countries that mistreat women and LGBT people, engage in internal conflict, repress their people, and generally behave in unpleasant ways, we should buy oil from Canada, because Canada is a nice country, and it’s better to support nice countries than abusive ones.

It’s not a terrible argument. I know I’d rather have my money go to support benevolent companies and countries than, say, Saudi Arabia. And unfortunately, we don’t quite have the choice to just not buy oil or petroleum products (oh, plastics), so we might as well buy it from the nicer people, right?

There are three immediately obvious problems with this campaign.

One: the posters. Which present things as Evil versus Good, and do pathetic things like balance the systemic mistreatment of women in “conflict oil” countries against the election of one woman in Canada to the position of Mayor. (It turns out the woman shown is the mayor of Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown in Alberta.)

I see what you're doing.

Two: the positioning of this as the only choice there is – either we buy oil from mean countries, or from nice countries. The posters and associated blog do not address putting our resources into developing alternatives to oil. (I have not read the book; perhaps the author devotes some time to this. Though I am skeptical, given his conservative background, and statement that the “chief criticism of the Alberta oilsands is esthetic.“)

I -wish- it were only a matter of aesthetics.

Further, the posters – and the blog posts on the website – are focused only on the behavior of the governments, not on the behavior of the oil companies. Some of the companies working in Canada work only in Canada, but many of them are large companies that work in many places around the world. Some of them have ceased work in conflict-torn regions, but many of them have not.

Data came from Wikipedia and the companies' websites.

Three: defining use of any fossil fuel as “ethical,” just because the people producing it are less evil than other producers. Can something that causes environmental degradation, kills wildlife, sickens and kills people exposed to polluted air and water, and contributes to climate change, be considered ethical? I would argue that no, it cannot, not unless we find really, really good ways to prevent the problems associated with current oil extraction and consumption. And those solutions seem as far away as an all-renewables world. Some oil companies are working hard to reduce the pollution caused by extracting and refining the stuff, but they’ve got a long way to go before they can call their processes environmentally friendly.

If only we had decades of data about the impact in other places, we might be able to make some reasonable assumptions.


Going back to the posters, in additional to the offensively simplistic presentation of the argument, there’s a blatant attempt to link this “ethical” oil from Canada to sustainability, by the use of green backgrounds on the “ethical” posters, and a logo shaped like a drop of  . . . oil? water?, colored in blue and green.

It's a good idea, from a marketing perspective. If you assume your audience won't think about it.

Maybe the companies operating in Canada are being exceptionally careful to keep pollutants out of the air and water, but the ethical oil campaign isn’t going into much detail about that. And even if they are, petroleum is still not a renewable resource.

Via Twitter, I learned that, not only did the poster’s creator not ask the Mayor whether she was okay with her photo being used in this campaign (she is not, despite being the mayor of the town currently benefiting most from oil extraction), it is unclear whether he got permission to use some of the other images, too.

A feminist scholar would probably have interesting things to say about the use of a woman's photo without her permission, and how that relates to conservative, pro-business views in general.

Canada, much like the US, has experienced an erosion in women’s rights since a more conservative, pro-big business, government got control of things.

I haven’t read very deeply about the business practice of all the companies, or how corrupt the “conflict oil” countries are, but equating Canada’s treatment of its citizens with oil companies’ behavior is ridiculous. Canada may allow same-sex marriage, but ExxonMobil is not LGBT-friendly at all. And Murphy Oil only scored a 15 on the Corporate Equality Index.

Something I have not researched is the impact of Canadian law on companies' anti-equality policies.

It is certainly true that there are places in the world, like Sudan, where certain ethnic groups have been viciously attacked so that one group can gain control of their land in order to control the oil there (note: things don’t get much better when a company leaves, because that company just sells its lease or whatever to . . . another company). In Canada, things aren’t happening quite so violently, but the Alberta and Canadian governments are being sued over developments that would violate treaties regarding First Nations’ rights.

I'm sure the oil companies will quickly deal with any oil spills on First Nations lands. Right? Right??

Compared to other countries, Canada may have better regulations in place related to environmental protection, but the government is not immune to being influenced by big businesses (more). It makes sense: develop the oilsands more, that creates more jobs, brings in more money, etc.

It's not just who votes, but who has the money to influence behavior after the election.

This is highly relevant to the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will run from Alberta down to Texas, and which has not yet been approved. (Map of existing and projected pipelines, out to 2019.) Already in 2011, there have been pipeline spills in places including the Yellowstone River. I for one can hardly wait until even MORE wild land, farm land, aquifers, etc., etc., can be threatened by leaky pipes!

Nothing improves nature like the sweet smell of hydrocarbons.

For another good reaction to the points raised by the “ethical” oil people, check out “Ethical Oil? Climate Change Is Unethical and Prejudice Is Too”, which covers several things much better than I have.

I don’t have a problem with discussing the merits of buying oil from Canada versus other countries, but that should be done by considering the whole story, not a shallow, simplistic presentation of a tiny handful of facts.

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