Moving the earth for oil

Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.

But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:

“It 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. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.”

He added in a subsequent interview that the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum “is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don’t go to fund terrorism”.

So the oil is ethical because Canada is a democracy. He doesn’t actually name the countries which produce less than ethical oil, but his characterisation presumably draws on a recent book Ethical Oil by Canadian author Ezra Levant which instances Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Sudan as much less desirable sources.

As the Globe and Mail sees it, Kent’s pitch is “an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada’s oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage”.

Kent complains that the product has been demonised, but in its support falls back on the sort of argument we’ve heard a lot of in New Zealand. He calls it “relevant measurements”.

“Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators.”

Citing the tentative economic recovery, Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.

“Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery. It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly.”

The Canadian government does have some intentions for emissions reductions – 17 percent down from 2005 levels by 2020. But the rules when they come will be drawn up “with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation”.

It is clear that the Canadian Government has not faced up to the fact that we can’t both successfully tackle the threat of climate change and also pursue fossil fuels to depletion. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and no amount of bluster about developing natural resources or economic recovery or maintaining competitiveness can alter it.

It’s a fact which many Governments must face, not only Canada’s. Indeed while reading the Globe and Mail report I was struck by the similarities to the position of the New Zealand government. Our Minister of Energy and Economic Development is defending the exploitation of what he describes as our natural resources with equal robustness. He paints a rosy economic future from deep sea oil drilling and lignite coal development. It will, of course, be undertaken with due regard for the environment. In fact, he went so far as to say in his opening address to the NZ Petroleum Conference last September that the development is needed to enable us to care for our environment.

“I would strongly argue that it is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment. A strong economy allows the government to spend money on biodiversity, on improving water quality, on insulating our houses, on protecting our endangered species and preserving our heritage. All those things cost money. None of them are free. A strong economy allows expenditure on them.

“So rather than stop ourselves from using our natural wealth, this government has made it clear we want to develop our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.”

The doublethink is staggering.  The only honest way of putting what both Ministers are saying is that anything we do towards emissions reduction will be token at best, because we are dead set on developing our fossil fuel resources. Why don’t they just put it baldly so that we all know where our Governments stand?  Why the weasel words about environmental protection?  Why talk of reducing emissions when they plan fuelling their increase on a large scale?

We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be.

No doubt I’ll be accused of being simplistic in pressing such questions when the issue is one of great complexity. Well, there may be complexities to be worked through, but the underlying picture is starkly simple. We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be. It was a group of Canadian scientists who have just published a widely reported paper in Nature Geoscience which predicts climate change resulting from even the present level of CO2 will be persisting for centuries. I wonder what Canadian Ministers make of that.

Another newly published Canadian paper was reported on TV3 news last night because of the major shrinkage it predicted in New Zealand glaciers during this century. I wonder if that registered with New Zealand Ministers. All the wealth of the South Island lignite fields or of oil discovered in deep sea drilling won’t suffice to put the ice back in the glaciers.

27 thoughts on “Moving the earth for oil”

  1. Simple is good. Simplisitc is just fine.

    This is not a complex or sophisticated concept.

    Sometimes it feels like arguing with a toddler or a teenager.

    Stop that now. Yes, but….. yes, but ….

    Stop. Just stop.

  2. I suspect that politicians equate the wellbeing of the people they ostensibly represent with the economic health of leading business players. Hence they conflate supporting business at all costs with supporting their voters long term interests. This is a shame, and there is not much we can do about it.

    We have to ask, however, to what extent the present NZ government stands in the way of individual citizens taking effective action to protect their own interests in the face of the current stupidity. The answer is “Very little” – you and I can reduce our oil use and configure our lives in a way that can provide the basic necessities of life and contentment without support from the present economic situation in a way that is in harmony with the environment. We don’t have to wait for government action (it wont happen anyway) – but we can and should make our own arrangements for a better future. And fast.


    1. which particular actions are NZ politicians standing in the way of Nigel?
      Surely, you can take your own actions.

      If you are anti-fossil fuels, then invade Huntly, or smash some cars with a sledgehammer. I am sure a judge will look upon you with leniency. After all, you are saving the planet.

      1. We expend a lot of emotional energy muttering about the apparent inability of the governments of the world to activate effective responses to the many woes-of-our-own-making we confront. Climate change, peak resources etc. The point I am trying to make is that we can simply stop moaning and in fact we can and should completely ignore government; we can just go do the right thing.

        None of the ‘cures’ for the ills we suffer are illegal in any state – we are free to act in ways that solve the problem for ourselves, and if enough do it then for humanity.

        Fretting about the Brownlees of this world and their ilk is a pointless and spiritually draining exercise. A waste of time and as the saying goes ‘it just annoys the pig’.

        Kind regards


        1. Nigel, of course there is much that we can do as individuals and there is also much that businesses can and some are doing. Local bodies can pitch in too. In my more optimistic moments I imagine a swing in business and investor practice which will leave the Brownlees of this world stranded. But my own experience of trying to act on the individual level does nothing to lessen my concern that there must be political action if the magnitude of the problem of climate change is to be appropriately matched.

        2. So long as these individuals remain the small minority, how can they really make any meaningful difference other than with their vote? If you do get enough individuals to do enough that it makes a notable difference to the climate then you’d no longer have a small minority, and you’d not be talking about them as individuals because what you’d then really have is large group that can be organised (and doubtlessly would’ve organised), and then you’d have had serious power in Government and the right decisions would be made at that level.

          Government is key. An individual can’t decide tomorrow to imagine the carbon free infrastructure into existence, e.g. in order to take a train to work instead of drive. Only governments can do that. I definitely agree people should do what they can, but finding a way to get beyond individuals and get the government moving is necessary and can’t be ignored.

          1. Erentz; I most respectfully but strongly disagree with your contention that government is a necessary element in the process of advancing the change required.

            I see the issue as a moral issue, not one that ‘government’ can or even needs to get involved in.

            We are told repeatedly by ‘government’ that the market can lead to change in the products and systems we have to use; carbon-free transport for example. If that is the case, (and it has been for a while) then we-the-market can choose to force those changes.

            For example I suggested at a City Council hearing that the most effective thing our city could do to reduce food miles and non-recyclable packaging would be to include a dozen sheets of small stickers which read “I didn’t buy this product today because it came from too far away!” and “I didn’t buy this product today because the packaging is not sustainably produced or recyclable!”. Include these with every notice to householders for a year for them to take with them shopping and the change would be remarkable. They saw the threat to their commercial rates-base however, and demurred.

            The moral issue here is well known to most of us:-

            It is wrong to keep on doing what we are doing to the Earth. It is wrong because it is having an impact on all of us today, and the impacts on our children and future generations are certain to be worse than we can imagine. Therefore the moral issue relates to the choice between business-as-usual and some other thing.

            We do not need government to make these choices, and we do not need government to make these choices known to the market or to any powers-that-be who may have any useful interest in our choices.

            The greatest issues of our times have not been solved by government cooperation or action, but by moral action declared by conscious non-violent actions as evidence of the moral stand. The two great examples of the use of moral force are South Africa’s abandonment of apartheid and India’s freedom from the British. Neither of these remarkable events required the ‘cooperation’ of governments, but rather the governments fell beneath the force of the moral onslaught.

            These shining lights contrast markedly with every other ‘solution’ that has been tried; with perhaps the notable exception of the elimination of CFCs in relation to the ozone layer depletion – which was achieved cooperatively because (again) the problem and solution were clear and morally it was the morally right thing to do.

            There is no other practical way forwards for us;
            *We must resolve and declare the nature of the moral issue in terms that the poorest most uneducated and disadvantaged members of our society can grasp, see the rightness of and act on;
            *We must apply our individual moral force to the issue by ‘becoming the change you want to see in the World’ (MKG). If this change is seen as good, then it will encourage others to the rightness of the need for change.
            *We must, if need-be, apply non-violent means, including civil non-cooperation against established institutions which are obstacles to the required change to achieve the morally correct end.

            That is the only way to take this matter beyond individuals and get the movement that is necessary.

            1. Nigel, I resoundingly agree it’s a moral issue. I disagree that it is, “not one that ‘government’ can or even needs to get involved in.”

              When I then go on to read the rest of your argument it seems you do feel that government has a role, but that you think it is up to a grass roots movement of individuals to become large enough to bring about permanent change through the government.

              I don’t think you’re advocating no government involvement, where some people individually elect to be carbon neutral for the rest of their lives, while others are free to pollute to their hearts content. Obviously that won’t work.

              So I think we’re largely in agreement. Individuals should do what they can, but I’m not convinced that they should take action that unreasonably results in a lower wellbeing when no one else is, or because the government hasn’t provided the infrastructure. As per the point I made earlier — and as adelady reinforced below — the right thing may be to take a train, but if there’s no train should they quit their job? Move into a cardboard box in the city park? Better for them to do what they can in other areas (buying sustainable products if they have the purchasing power to do so, and that kind of thing), and importantly be counted on the issue in petitions and in elections so that their leaders will build them the infrastructure they need to live their lives carbon neutral. If they don’t do that then they’ll never be able to. (Without moving to some permaculture block or similar, assuming they can afford it.)

            2. Very well reasoned and stated Nigel. Each incremental decision we make as individuals, even if only for the lesser of two evils, can help move humanity toward a more sustainable basis of living on the planet.

              The idea of the stickers was particular interesting, although it could get one in trouble for defacing property I suppose. An alternative would be to simply bring a few offending items to the checkout and put them aside with a note when making a purchase.

            3. Will the commenters on the other thread be putting stickers on their Blackberrys, Apples and XBoxes?

            4. I totally agree – it is a moral issue and as such it is dependent upon each and every person to act in a moral way.
              You note the use of
              ““I didn’t buy this product today because the packaging is not sustainably produced or recyclable!”.
              I don’t put stickers on – I tell the management directly. And go and buy elsewhere.
              Meat for example. Supermarkets and now most butchers seem to think that the only way to sell meat is on a polystyrene tray. I wonder about the person who produces the trays. “What do you do?”, a friend asks. “I make rubbish…Actually, it’s used once, and then sent to the tip where the flies use it to lay their eggs.” How would that make you feel as a person?
              We don’t need to have our meat presented to us on a tray. It actually doesn’t need a tray and cling wrap at all.
              So I tell the butcher and the Supermarket they can stuff their trays, and walk out. I don’t give them the opportunity to unwrap it – that serves no purpose what so ever. Fortunately there is a butcher in town who doesn’t use the wretched trays and now she has my continual custom. Spread the word.

        3. OK Nigel, I think the ‘moral’ thing for me to do would be to catch the train rather than use my car.

          Whoops! There’s no train.

          What do I do now?

          The thing you forget is that *good* government makes it easier rather than harder for individuals to make better personal choices.

  3. So, let’s check. You’ve got a few options when buying oil.

    Saudi Arabia

    Which of those have a government that you would want to buy oil from. They’re “friends” and won’t fund your enemies.

    If you’re a Western country that leaves Mexico, Canada, USA.
    If you’re the USA, that leaves Canada and Mexico.

    If you need oil, is it more or less “ethical” to buy it from Iran, Saudi Arabia or Canada? The argument the minister is using is the same as that used against blood diamonds. “Don’t support dictators and warlords”.

    Finally, don’t conflate greenhouse emissions in total from a country with the greenhouse emissions of a particular sector. The two are independent, and painting one as evil severely limits the options for the country. As it was pointed out, the oil sands are only 5% of the total emissions. Transport is typically 50%. So, a 10% reduction in Transport emissions results in the oil sands being a net 0. If they got the energy to extract the oil from a source other than the oil itself (like, say, nuclear), then

    The Canadian government is terrible on greenhouse emissions, but that’s _separate_ from digging oil and coal out of the ground.

    1. Jason, your argument doesn’t address Hansen’s warning. He considers that provided we rapidly phase out the use of coal we can possibly safely use up the conventional readily accessible crude oil (not pursued to the last drop, though, as in deep sea drilling), but if to that is added unconventional oil sources such as the tar sands or shale we are in trouble. In my mind it is this which makes the case for tar sands oil unsupportable not just the emissions associated with its extraction. This “natural resource” should be left in the ground.

    2. Jason, I appreciate your argument (upvote) but if the concern is ethics then let’s compare.

      On the one hand we have buying oil from Canada which means opening a new unconventional resource in the knowledge that it will have catastrophic consequences for the future possibly resulting in uncountable millions of deaths and displaced people, along with wiping out a century’s worth of wealth that has gone into coastal infrastructure. However you have gained nothing ethically because you are still not fully meeting your oil needs and must therefore continue to buy from the dictatorships to meet your needs.

      On the other you are buying slightly more oil from dictatorships than you would in the scenario above, and thereby giving them more financing for their dictatorship activities (whatever those might be).

      People in these countries will arguably suffer equally from their lack of democracy under both scenarios, but the whole world population will suffer more under the first scenario.

      If ethics was the real concern then oil importing countries with real political influence like the USA and to a lesser extent Canada and the other western nations wouldn’t have spent the past 100 years supporting these dictatorships in order to keep control on that oil. And they would now be applying pressure to these countries to give their citizens better rights in return for buying their oil. Ethics has nothing to do with why Canada wants the USA to buy its unconventional oil, money is the reason pure and simple.

  4. I am a person of action and I along with millions of other people are the people who move the planet to change.

    There is one issue with regard to our current carbon based economy that is presenting a case of finding more uses for coal and oil that do not involve burning them. Thus adding greater value to the resource that at the same time captures the carbon (not to say that we create more plastic that fills our oceans and is itself a environmental disaster). We have to create a closed loop and surely our intelligence is capable of coming up with a solution?

    The problem is not simple but it is doable. We just have to create the desire to do so.

    This is a issue of logic not emotion. Do we want our children to have clean air to breath, clean water to drink and clean soil to grow their food in. They are simple needs for homo-sapiens survival. It has simple solutions stop polluting the biosphere and create a sustainable system.

    We have to move our thinking beyond the immediate need for energy and think beyond our personal needs and think of us as part of a system ,our plant.

    Just as an additional comment – have you seen the photo (the pale blue dot) taken from Voyager 1 while on the edge of our solar system (approximately 3,762,136,324 miles from home). and the commentary written by Carl Sagan’s they are words worth remembering and yes they are word that will connect emotionally.

    Ian Cleland
    About People

    1. Yes Ian, there is a bit resting on that little blue dot.

      In 1964 Sir Fred Hoyle put our condition rather bluntly:-
      ‘It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.’

      While I agree that we do have one real chance, Hoyle conflates achievement of ‘high-level technology’ with the demonstration of ‘intelligence’. Instead I believe we have an opportunity to prove that we can demonstrate the highest intelligence by turning away from the development of any modern-day form of resource-depleting ‘high-level technology’, and instead develop the intellectual capacity, spiritual and social structures to live well and harmoniously within our planet’s sustainable resources.

      That will mean we do have to make choices that see each of us living outside (I won’t say ‘below’) the normally accepted first-worldly ‘standard of living’. But I thought this afternoon, as I fried up a nice steak, onions and tomatoes on my solar cooker, that I am sure I could live more simply and no less happier than I am now in a simpler world.

      We will have to accept some change in our circumstances; we have a choice of adopting those changes through our own deliberate actions, or else we will simply join the panic-stricken rabble walking into empty supermarkets and have changed forced upon us, like Britons did in September 2000. Your choice; consider:-

      Remember, Remember the 5th of September, 2000
      “…It started with a few angry French fishermen who found it harder and harder to make a living with the price of gas increasing, and blamed government taxation. They were so angry, they protested by blocking the English Channel [on the 5th of September 2000]…
      “…On September 9th, a nation-wide panic buying of fuel began. A few days later, over half of Britain’s gas stations were shut down. When the first deliveries of gas began again on September 15th, 90 percent of gas stations were without fuel. Still, even though all protest had stopped, motorists were warned that they could still face a wait of up to two weeks for gas and delivering that gas posed a “massive logistical problem.” (4)
      “…The impact on critical infrastructure was devastating. Food didn’t get delivered to supermarket shelves. Ambulance services stopped as did blood supplies to hospitals. One hospital ran out of stitches and many more complained about being unable to move hazardous materials from their facilities, creating health risk. Medicines were not delivered to pharmacies. ATM machines weren’t loaded with money. The financial impact of the week-long fuel drought was estimated to top £1 billion. (5)
      “…Despite a five percent increase in rider-ship on public transportation (causing overcrowding), trains and buses were required to reduce frequency or stop service on many lines because of lack of gasoline or drivers who couldn’t get to work. Hospital personnel shortages also caused all but emergency hospital care to be cancelled. The ambulances that did run were told to keep their speed below [35 km/h] to conserve fuel. (6)
      “…Food sales increased 300 percent, and as the sight of empty shelves became common, panic buying increased. By September 13th, having no bread or milk, a number of supermarkets began rationing food purchases.(7)

      Once chance… the choice is ours, the choice is yours…

      Nigel Williams

  5. As a Canadian, I find Peter Kent’s remarks interesting. A few thoughts:

    According the Council of Candians in 2008, ‘We purchase around 55 per cent of our oil from countries such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.’ I believe over half of the oil produced in Canada goes to the U.S.

    The fossil fuel industry has a huge lobby effort in Canada. The Pembina Institute also obtained government documents via FOI that showed our democrats were trying to influence the U.S. decisions on climate change legislation / oil sands.

    Back when Stefan Dion was chosen as Liberal leader and became PM, he was planning to introduce a carbon tax, with proceeds going to reduce income tax etc. The party was thrown out on their ear, with the Alberta based Harper coming in.

    Ironically, Alberta well be in the best position to modify its infrastructure to use more renewables, because they will have the oil revenues to put towards it. Frustrating, to say the least.

  6. But Mr. Kent, does burning ethical oil produce ethical carbon dioxide, which I understand is diametrically at odds with the dictatorial carbon dioxide produced by burning fuels from Saudi Arabia or Nigeria? If ethical carbon dioxide cause ethical climate disruption, which in turn results in ethical floods and ethical heat waves, then shouldn’t we label the resulting deaths as ethical deaths?


  7. As a Canadian, I am obliged to let you know that Peter Kent’s official title is “Minister of Environmental Propoganda”, and everything he thinks or says is vetted first by Our Fearless Leader Harper.

  8. Here is a recent post over at Sciblogs by Eloise Gibson. In it she notes that “a major review out last month from the Royal Society of Canada castigated both the Canadian and provincial Alberta governments for letting development run ahead of their ability to monitor it.” She also provides a link to the full report.

  9. Thanks. Eloise Gibson’s post on failure of monitoring of its tar shale industry is an eye opener.
    Canada’s exploitation of its tar shale is the trajectory Gerry Brownlee clearly intends for NZ.

    Less seriously, can I suggest we export Gerry to Canada, instead of exporting lignite briquettes?.. He could (marginally) help the Canadian Ministers with their “messaging” on “environmentally benign” oil shale/tar sands developments. LOL!

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