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?

Nati Harnik/AP/File
Demonstrators for and against the Keystone XL pipeline gather near the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., last month as federal officials hold public hearings. To gain support for the proposed oil pipeline that would span the country from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, Canada's oil sands industry is pushing the idea that its oil is more ethical than the Middle East's because Canada's human-rights record is superior.

Canada's government and oil industry want Americans to stop thinking of heavy Alberta crude as "dirty oil" and start thinking of it as "ethical oil."

Canadian diplomats have been making the rounds with US policymakers while a lobby group for the industry recently put out a television commercial comparing Canada's record on women's rights with that of Saudi Arabia with the tag line: "Ethical oil from Canada's oil sands. A choice we have to make."

It's an intriguing idea that oil can be ethical depending on where it's extracted. The effort to rebrand the Alberta oil sands comes against the backdrop of increasing opposition from US and Canadian environmentalists and others to the Keystone XL pipeline. The $13 billion project will carry the viscous crude from northeastern Alberta, across several Midwestern states, to refineries in Texas and the Gulf Coast. That is, if the Obama administration approves the transborder development.

"We're not being holier-than-thou about it, but we point out that Canada is a democracy with all the associated rights and privileges ... [and] the human rights benefits that flow from that," says Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the United States, in a telephone interview. "President Obama, when he was a candidate, promised to wean the US off Middle Eastern oil and we are just pointing out the obvious."

But can oil be ethical, wherever it comes from?

The notion of ethical oil was popularized this past summer by Canadian Conservative pundit and author Ezra Levant in his book "Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands." Using the parallel with conflict diamonds, Mr. Levant has dubbed oil from the Middle East, Africa, and Venezuela "conflict oil." He argues that as a Western democracy, Canada has a better track record in areas such as human rights, labor relations, and even environmental regulations, therefore the oil is more ethical.

"We will need oil in the foreseeable future and until that happy day comes when we don't, the choice is between conflict oil and ethical oil," Levant says in an interview here in Toronto.

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.

"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."

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