Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Can the Canadian oil sands really be an 'ethical' source of energy?

The new year has got off to a bang in Canada with the new Environment Minister Peter Kent coming out of his corner fighting. According to Kent, the Albertan oil sands are not the environmental catastrophe we all thought they were. In fact, as he says, the oil sands are "an ethical source of energy". Yes, that's right. Alberta is the new home of ethical oil.  Oh boy, that's going to need some explaining.

Now, before you slam your head into the computer screen in disbelief, let's take a closer look at this claim and put it in a little bit of context. Kent's basic point is that because the oil sands are in Canada, they are properly and democratically regulated, they do not fall foul of corruption and abuses common in oil rich countries - and the proceeds don't go into funding terrorism. Compare that to the other states in the top 10 countries by proven oil reserves and you can see that he might have a point. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, UAE, Russia, Libya, and Nigeria - hardly a list of ethical hotspots it has to be said. As Kent puts it, "[Oil sands oil] is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy... The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy."

OK, so let's not get into a debate about just how "great" the Canadian democracy is. After all this is a country that, under the current Government, has regularly taken to shutting down Parliament when things get a bit dicey. But against the rest of the countries with big oil reserves, it still comes up looking pretty good by comparison. This is important for potential buyers of oil sands oil, especially the US which is concerned with global energy security, and is looking to wean itself off its dependence on oil imports from countries that it would rather not have to go to war with again. In fact, Kent's ethical makeover of the oil sands is all part of the major charm offensive that the Canadian government is pursuing to bolster its reputation in the US and elsewhere where climate concerns have started making Canadian oil distinctly unpopular in recent years.

In this context Kent is right to promote some of the virtues of the oil sands. All energy sources have their positives and negatives - yet the oil sands has become chiefly known only for its social and environmental downside. So a bit of rebalancing of the ethical equation is not inappropriate. But claiming any source of non-renewable energy is "ethical" and especially one that is fraught with such problems as oil sands oil, is not too helpful in advancing the debate in a meaningful way. Such claims may get media attention but they also infuriate critics and simply serve to entrench existing antagonisms. Climate activists are likely to target the oil sands even harder now that the Canadian government is drawing out the battle lines in this way. Greenpeace Canada for example had already started campaigning on a 'Separate oil from state' platform including an anonymous leak site for inside tip-offs about government efforts to promote the oil sands. This is all part of a concerted NGO response to what  the Climate Action Network regards as, "federal officials ... systematically trying to kill clean energy and climate change policies in other countries in order to promote the interests of oil companies."

Far better it would have been then for Kent to acknowledge the shortcomings of the oil sands along with proclaiming their virtues. Any freshman ethics student knows that a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of the ethics of different energy sources has to take into account more than just one factor. Country of origin is just one of a whole range of relevant issues. There is no way that the tar sands can be regarded as an ethical source of oil based on one factor alone. But country of origin "benefits" can be traded off with climate change "costs" if you subscribe to a utilitarian mode of thinking. However, a myopic, one-sided piece of government propaganda doesn't help anyone ... especially when it is proclaiming the virtues of "the great Canadian democracy".

Photo copyright Greenpeace

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