Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cleaning up the "ethical oil" mess

With Stephen Harper's government getting plenty of heat at the Durban climate conference over its decision to relegate Kyoto to the history books,  there is a lot of discussion back home about the merits or otherwise of presenting the Canadian oil sands as "ethical oil". It's something we discussed in the blog earlier in the year, but the XL pipeline decision process has kept the issue very much on the front burner. Factor in a controversial TV spot by comparing so-called "ethical" Canadian oil to "conflict" oil sourced from Saudi Arabia that funds oppression of women, and its no surprise to wind up in a heated debate

Yesterday, CBC, Canada's national broadcaster, featured a segment on ethical oil in its popular morning radio show The Current, and we were happy to be invited to participate, along with Kathryn Marshall, the spokesperson for and Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has publicly come out against the tar sands.  You can hear the lively discussion, led by the impressive host Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC website.

A colleague of ours in the law school here at York University, Stepan Wood, has blogged about the show and takes the time to expand upon some critical points that there was hardly even enough time to raise in the conversation itself. As he says:
"For one thing,[ethical oil's] narrow focus on human rights and the rule of law distracts attention from the massive environmental damage and energy consumption involved in extraction and processing of tar sands oil. For another, the claim that tar sands operations fully respect human rights is debatable, with numerous First Nations claiming that these operations impair their rights to clean water and a healthful environment. It is also hard to miss the xenophobic undertones of the Ethical Oil message–it is no coincidence that most of the countries targeted by the campaign are ethnically, culturally or religiously distinct from the white Canadian majority"
The bottom line, in which we and Stepan agree, is that Canada is very much not a leader when it comes to handling its responsibilities around oil extraction:
"To be a real leader Canada would have to show that it is genuinely committed to progress toward a post-carbon economy and improvement of the human rights records of Canadian companies overseas. This would include holding Canadian oil companies to the same high standards wherever they do business in the world. It is disingenuous to say that oil companies in Canada are ethical leaders if those very same companies are busily pumping oil and propping up those same repressive foreign regimes that the Ethical Oil campaign vilifies."
We don't expect that to happen any time soon, and in fact Canada has been content to be relegated very much to the margins of the Durban conference. When even China is criticizing you for setting a bad example, any claims that the country is a leader in providing "ethical oil" are only likely to fall on deaf ears.

Graphic by jfeathersmith. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence


  1. HI Andrew.

    Thanks for the blog post.
    This issue seems to be haunting me.
    One of the issues that I don't think has been raised clearly enough is that 'climate' is a 'human rights' issue, hence 'Climate justice'. These two cannot be conveniently separated, as 'Ethical Oil' so wishes to do. Climate change is, in fact, the number one human rights issue of our time.

  2. BTW - where did the graphic come from?

  3. Nik - good point on human rights and climate. They can't be easily separated,... though there are limits to expanding rights to everything climate related.
    The graphic, as always, we've credited at the foot of the post. This one is from jfeathersmith. Its hotlinked in the post

  4. Professor Crane, I thought you did very well on the radio, demonstrating what a load of hooey Marshall was producing without actually calling it a load of hooey.

    That post by jfeathersmith is great, also.

    You might be interested in these blogposts about the Ethical Oil Institute:

  5. I once worked for the Canadian nickel mining here in Indonesia. I thought the company was upholding business ethics more than the neighbouring American mining giant here in Papua. As a UK graduate, I thought the Canadian culture was closer to the European countries- referring to your US vs European perspectives on business ethics, including on how the company perceived people's expectation on the company- Carrol's CSR pyramid. However with the Canadian's withdrawal from the Durban and Kyoto Protocols, Canada is just a simply the 52nd of USA


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