The absurd “moral superiority” of tar sands oil

In a rational world the notion that Canadian tar sands oil is ‘ethical’ by comparison with oil from many other sources would be laughable. But I wrote earlier this year that the Canadian Conservation Minister Peter Kent used the term with some emphasis in his defence of the tar sands operation. This week I read that it’s now being vigorously promoted through a website  launched by  Alykhan Velshi, a neocon lawyer who until recently was  the communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. He was also an important part of the Conservative Party election campaign operation.

Leo Hickman in the Guardian article which drew my attention to the website remarked that considering his tender age (he’s 27) Velshi seems to be remarkably well-versed in the dark arts of spin and misdirection. As Hickman describes, the website divides oil producing countries into goodies and baddies.

“Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries. Some Conflict Oil regimes even support terrorism.”

The same logic is applied to the environmental concerns surrounding tar sands oil:

“In an ethical country like Canada, we obviously take the environment a lot more seriously than the Chinese regime does: it’s why we hear so much concern about the oil sands carbon footprint from NGOs, politicians and in the media. You won’t hear nearly as much criticism in China, or Venezuela, for that matter. The fact that Canadians care so much about the planet – and that we have the freedom to express our concerns – is one of the many reasons that we know Canada is a more ethically minded country than most.”

The question of the emissions level of the operation is virtually dismissed by the claim that emissions associated with the extraction of the oil total just over one-hundredth of one percent of all the greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere.

There’s no specific climate change denial involved. The site speaks often of the need to reduce carbon footprint, and claims that the extraction methods being developed on the tar sands do exactly that. But there’s also no questioning of oil mining per se. It appears to be taken for granted that mining and burning oil can go on unhindered by concerns about what the burning of that oil will mean for greenhouse gas concentrations. Not that Velshi is out of line in such a view, which seems to be shared by many of the world’s governments. Few of them seem prepared to eschew oil exploration and mining. Gross though the promotion of the Alberta oil sands is on this website, it’s hardly out on a limb in the broad scheme of oil exploitation.

I hold no brief for Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record the website attacks. But the real issue is not where oil is produced but whether we should be pursuing it to the last drop before we turn away from using it at all. Common sense tells us to stop as soon as we possibly can. The advocates of tar sand extraction and deep sea drilling tell us there’s no hurry, and the companies involved make ever greater profits while we delay.

It’s absurd to describe any oil as ethical. We may have to go on using it for a while yet but we should do so with reluctance and with determination to replace it with renewable energy sources as quickly as we can. The more of it we can leave in the ground the better. Perhaps that’s the one kind of oil that could legitimately be called ethical.

7 thoughts on “The absurd “moral superiority” of tar sands oil”

  1. Good points, Bryan.
    don’t we need to use the sequestration properties of biochar (and for that matter all other carbon sinks) to deal with the excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, instead of “off-setting” additional emissions – or are you channelling your satirical inner Don Elder?

    1. Allan, it has been mentioned. It would have started already if they hadn’t run into problems – without anything being reported in the press down here (Southland). There was a report in the Southland Times 22.6.11 headed ‘Coal-Seam gas production held back by hitches’ “…it quickly became clear the well was not working as well as planned.”

      It was reported that L & M Energy’s coal-seam gas production test site at Ohai was expected to be selling electricity to the Tiwai Point Aluminuim Smelter by the end of June – and that article was the first most of the public had heard about this project!

  2. While I laughed long and hard the first time I heard the phrase “ethical oil” used to describes the tar sands, there is (somewhere in the murky depths of this phrase) a legitimate ethical debate to be found. And I contend that it actually a debate most relevant to those (like many here and myself) who accept the claim that the most ethical fossil fuel is that which is left in the ground. That is, if we need to leave somewhere in the order of 60-80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground (in order to have a 75% chance of remaining below 2ºC rise over pre-industrial temps, as per Meinshausen et. al., 2009), then we raise the very tricky question of which fraction of the fossil fuel reserves are going to burn and on what basis will make such a decision? Is it most ethical to go with whichever sources can be extracted most economically? What if their extraction is so cheap because they are subsidised by slave labour? (or subsidised by national governments?) Should we exact only the fuel that has the highest EROEI? (I think I’d include towards this in an ideal world as it would maximise our useful energy from the remaining carbon budget (a budget that still brings us into very uncomfortable and dangerous territory, by the way – 2ºC is no picnic) Yet determining EROEI is neither straightforward nor transparent, and runs into the issue of sunk costs. Should there simply be an across the board cap on all national extraction, so that each nation, whatever its current reserves, is only allowed to remove a certain fraction of them? This encourages inflationary reporting of reserves (cf. OPEC’s claimed oil reserves), and also takes no account of historical exploitation.

    The suggestion from this PR rep, namely, “which oil is most ethical to produce?” is actually an important question, and only becomes more important if we accept that we going to have to leave very significant amounts of economically recoverable fuels in the ground. His answer as to which is most ethical may be naive (at best), self-serving or even mandaciously destructive, but the question deserves to be asked if we are ever to reach a public consensus about leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

  3. @ MR February
    I think I was channelling my Inner Tim Flannery, James Hansen or Bill McKibbin there 😉 all biochar advocates.

    There are enormous gaps in our knowledge of Biochar as a possible carbon sequestration technology. Few decent scale studies have been done, and already some of them [the bigger ones] have shown that it doesnt really do the trick at all [increase carbon in the soil] and can have lots of negative effects, and thats before you start using it as an offsetting mechanism.

    Biofuelwatch and others have been leading research into it, and have unearthed a hell of a lot evidence contradicting pro Biochar claims made by the worlds primary Biochar PR groups like the International Biochar Initiative [who have called for an area 1.5 times the size of India to be put aside for biochar production].

    Here is a good recent interview on the subject;

    Despite the lack of evidence, a great deal of effort is being made to get Biochar into the CDM [the UNFCCC offsetting mechanism] and the NZETS as a mitigation option. Carbonscape being the most prominent NZ based biochar company have been making submissions to the NZETS review panel. I havent seen the content of their submission, dont think its publically available yet, but if anyone out there has it Id be very keen to see.

    New Zealand could do with a critical conversation on Biochar, and access to good information that isnt coming from the PR networks or companies that stand to profit from large scale Biochar use/ R&D here, or its inclusion into soil carbon trading / offseting schemes.

    This is the best / most recent report on the subject I believe is available []. It contains a section on Biochar developments oin New Zealand and is highly critical of biochar as a climate sequestration option.

    And here is a good collection of reports and essays on Biochar:

    And here is a study you wont find being promoted by any of the Biochar networks here in NZ, or anywhere else;

    ‘First medium-term, peer-reviewed biochar field trial: What happened to all the carbon?

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