Ethical Oil?

December 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm (Other) (, , )

I just listened to an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current and I can’t resist putting my two cents in. Host Anna Maria Tremonti was speaking with Katherine Marshall, the new spokeswoman for the Ethical Oil Institute (what appears to be nothing more than a greenwash machine for Canada’s highly controversial oil sands).

The issue is that oil extraction from the tar sands is detrimental to the environment of northern Alberta, polluting drinking water and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an alarming rate, not to mention the destruction inherent in any pipeline project to get the oil to refineries in the US. The same can be said for oil extraction no matter where it occurs around the globe.

Marshall’s point in calling Canada’s oil “ethical” is that, unlike Canada, most other oil-exporting countries are not liberal democracies and do not have legal rights and protections for women and children or occupational safety standards for workers. Marshall’s position, and that of the “Ethical Oil” campaign, is that when we buy oil from conflict areas like Nigeria and the Middle East we are, in effect, condoning human rights abuses around the world–therefore we should only buy Canadian oil because, clearly, human rights trump the environment.

The point that host Anna Maria Tremonti kept trying to get at and which Katherine Marshall kept adroitly dodging is that we do not buy oil just from countries but from companies, most of which are Western-owned and operate in Canada and the US as well as conflict zones around the world. So, what’s the difference when you buy Shell oil if it comes from Nigeria or from Alberta? Marshall contends that if companies are responsible for environmental destruction, low wages, and occupational hazards then it is the fault of the countries in which they operate for not having stricter legal controls. (Nevermind that most developing nations cannot enforce strict controls or tax polluters and abusers due to the straitjacket of structural adjustment reforms imposed on them by the World Bank and IMF; that’s a discussion for another time.)

In order to avoid tacitly supporting human rights abuses, Tremonti asked if Marshall and the Ethical Oil Institute think people should boycott the oil companies that work in conflict zones. No, she said, the “Ethical Oil” campaign was merely about opening people’s eyes and getting them “interested” in the issue of where our oil comes from and how it is obtained. “Interested”? What, I ask, is the point in getting people interested if not to affect some kind of change? And, if change is to be had, why not boycott those responsible? Marshall argued in the interview that it is up to the countries, not the companies, to impose tighter controls, as if oil companies are champing at the bit for a chance to live up to higher ideals of worker and consumer safety and it is government regulations that prevent them from doing better. I say it is clear that oil companies only act on environmental and worker health and safety regulations when they absolutely have to (i.e. when they operate in developed nations with higher standards). Perhaps, developed nations should be able to impose their higher standards on Western-owned companies no matter where they work.

Rant over! I couldn’t help myself; this Marshall woman was so illogical and no seems to want to state the obvious: that true leadership doesn’t just decide who or where to buy oil from, a true leader wouldn’t be afraid to tell his people that some serious belt-tightening and a drastic re-evaluation of the level of material comfort we expect out of life is necessary now and in the future.



  1. dreamstreamr said,

    Great points, Kelsey. Your rants are more than justified by her ridiculous position. Ah, but can Marshall really be held responsible for seeming out of line here? She’s just doing her job for the unethical oil institutes.

  2. No Gerry Mandering said,

    Actually, that doesn’t read much like a rant, and this is from someone who believes that if there is a demand for any product, Canada should do whatever it can to supply it. There’s no doubt that Canada will outscore most of the world’s regimes when it comes to environmental protection, corporate governance and rule of law.

    What you have done is touch on both sides of the issue, and that’s more than most bloggers can claim. Way to go.

    Meanwhile, no matter how poorly Levant/Velshi/Marshall make their points, I think that bringing up “Ethical Oil” as an issue is useful for the world to consider.

    Next, let’s work on “Ethical Hummers” “Ethical Commuting from the Suburbs” and “Ethical Long Distance Vacations” etc that are causing the demand for the oil in the first place. Then “Ethical Coal Burning Power Generation” (especially in China) which will result in the Earth burning to a crisp faster than 200 Athabaska oil deposits ever could.

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