Is Canada's oil more ethical than Saudi Arabia's?
To boost support for a US pipeline for its oil sands crude, Canada claims it's more ethical than the Middle East. Is there such a thing as ethical oil?
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For years, some socially responsible investment firms have invested in specific oil companies, arguing that they operate with higher-than-average industry standards. Boston-based Trillium Asset Management, for example, looks for companies with environment and safety records that are at least above industry average and with respectful relationships with neighboring communities.Skip to next paragraph
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"BP was the only major oil company we had been holding in our portfolio because we felt they had more forward-thinking policies," says Shelley Alpern, head of Trillium's environmental, social, governance research and advocacy team. But the firm sold its shares after BP's huge Gulf spill last year. Now Trillium holds only mid-size oil and gas companies and regularly encourages them to implement best practices.
"There are ways to make oil production more ethical, but it will never be an ethical industry," Ms. Alpern says. "It's an inherently dirty way of making money."
Critics say the ethical oil campaign is simplistic and disingenuous. "Canadians are good people, therefore we make good oil? It's a kindergarten argument," says Andrew Nikiforuk, an environmental journalist based in Calgary, Alberta, and author of "Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent." The campaign's aim "is to distract people from the conversations that Canadians need to be having" about issues like transparency around money and the industry's environmental track record, he says.
The heavy crude from the Alberta oil sands got its "dirty" environmental reputation because of the massive amounts of toxic waste water and carbon emissions produced during mining and the process to separate the crude from the sand, not to mention the clear-cutting of vast swaths of boreal forest necessary to extract the oil sands. Oil sands production has been estimated to create up to 20 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than conventional drilling, prompting a group of US mayors in 2008 to pass a resolution urging American cities to stop using fuel from oil sands.
Beyond the environmental concerns, oil can never be a truly ethical commodity because of the money and political power wrapped up with it, Mr. Nikiforuk says. "Wherever you have oil, you have issues," he says, citing lawsuits by aboriginal groups in Alberta over hunting, fishing, and trapping rights.
Ambassador Doer doesn't dispute the opposition, but he says that the oil industry is also the largest employer of aboriginal people in northeastern Alberta. "Democracy is messy. Thankfully," he says.
The whole notion of ethical oil sets up a false dilemma because the very viscous Canadian crude needs to be cut with lighter oils from places like Saudi Arabia in order to be transported down a pipeline, says Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar for the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics at the University of Toronto. "So what's the point of having ethical oil if you are mixing it with this 'conflict oil'?"
However, it might still be an effective marketing ploy in the US because of Americans' fatigue and unease over their reliance on oil from the Middle East, he adds. "It's unsubtle ... [but] certainly there is a grain of truth there. The Saudi regime is lousy on women's rights. But tar sands oil is the dirtiest and least environmentally attractive oil in the world. Choose your poison: environmental or human degradation."