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The dishonesty of “Ethical Oil”

Posted by Don McLenaghen on December 29, 2011

A member of my research team pointed out a story they thought interesting. It was a boycott organized against the Chiquita Banana Company who apparently announced that it would no longer buy Canadian oil. The article, that was the lead to this story, went to great lengths to point out that Chiquita was actually supporting ‘unethical’ oil and thus we should stop buying their bananas. In an uncustomary move, members of the Harper Cabinet, Rona Ambrose and Jason Kenney, supported this ‘grass roots’ boycott. It has a Facebook page and everything. The group that was the ultimate source of the story and the boycott is ‘EthicalOil.org’.

Fortunately, I had heard of this group before, so before blindly supporting a cause that on the surface seemed to coincide with my own, I did a little research.

First, the complaint against Chiquita was the claim that instead of buying oil from good old Canada, they would be purchasing it from evil countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. This was bad, because those countries have poor human rights records. Saudi Arabia does not give women the vote or equal rights. Venezuela is a socialist dictatorship with a poor record on press freedoms. Canadian Oil is ethical because we are a democracy and have good human rights records.

Now, Chiquita, as part of an environmental movement called Forest Ethics, stated it wanted its trucking partners to avoid using Tar Sands sourced oil. This does not mean that it demanded truckers buy Saudi oil. In fact about half of Canadian oil has nothing to do with the tar sands. Even the foreign oil is being sources from different counties; Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are a shrinking source of imported oil.

Okay, but let’s take a skeptic look at EthicalOil.org. Before heading to the website, I thought I would create a list of expectations. If their intent is to promote better ‘ethics’ seen as human rights, you would expect for them to have on their site a number of examples of both how bad human rights are in some countries as well as success stories. Their Raison d’être, implied by their “ethical oil”, is that we can influence countries to respect human rights by our oil and gas purchases. I would expect them to have a list of the most unethical countries and a list of the most ethical. I would expect there to be a list of companies that we should patronize based on where they source their oil. When I buy gas, I don’t BUY Saudi gas what I do is buy Shell or Petro Can gas.

So, went to their website, and what I saw was enlightening. Their stated goal is to promote Ethical CANADIAN tar sands oil vs. what it calls conflict oil. It seems they are trying to conflate conflict oil with conflict diamonds. Now the term ‘conflict’ has a very special meaning with regards to international trade; it refers to resources (usually but not exclusively diamond) mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, invading army’s war efforts, or a warlord’s activity. The sellers of these conflict items are almost always facing war crimes and crimes against humanity charges. They have been ostracized from the global community which is why they must sell and buy in the ‘off market’.

Beyond the ‘about us’ page, little if any mention of conflict oil (its apparent reason for existing) can be found on their website. What can be found is plenty of support for the Tar Sands, supporters of the Tar Sands and vigorous condemnation for ANY one who even hints that the Tar Sands is not the best thing for the planet.

Now it claims to be a Non-profit however it was created by a former Harper Government advisor to promote the ideas of a book “Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands” by Ezra Levant. Levant is a former tobacco lobbyist. However, ‘green-washing’ (and I have yet to find a more obvious and blatant example of this) does not have to provide its ‘corporate’ masters a profit. In fact, good green washing is done on a wink-and-a-nod, where reliable people set up an ‘astoturf’ group, knowing in the future they will be rewarded for their efforts. They state on their website they take no ‘corporate’ donations; however they don’t state that they don’t take money from the executive who run those corporations. It is sad and I think disgusting that such a front group is asking for donations from ‘real’ Canadians to promote an issue that is against their own self-interests (assuming they are not one the directors of the oil companies).

Okay, but let’s say it’s BAD at getting its ‘real’ message out; that regardless of the ‘intentions’ of the group, how do their other arguments stand up?

It does make some claims beyond ethics, first it helps Canada be energy independent…however, oil is sold on the global market, and since the National Energy Program ended in the mid-80s, eastern Canada has become more and more dependent on non-ethical tar sands oil. They claim we should support Canadian companies, however the majority of those involved in the Tar Sands are not Canadian…in fact one of the largest investors is China. Which of course raises the paradox that if China owns Tar Sands oil and China has horrible human rights abuses, does that mean that Tar Sands Oil is itself conflict oil?

What about the ‘ethical’ label? They have so narrowly defined ethical as to make it powerless. It is true inequality is bad but is it better or worse to destroy the environment, down nations under rising ocean levels, wipe out ecosystems and plunge billions into starvation?

Now, I mentioned earlier, that Chiquita originally took its stance against Tar Sands oil based on the recommendation from the group ForestEthics. I thought I would check out their site to compare.

First, it does not promote any particular ‘project’, like the tar sands. Their goal (supported by the posting, stories and write-ups on the site) is not against ‘tar sands’ par-se, but for the preservation of old-growth and ‘ancient’ forest…be they endangered by Tar Sands, mining, gas exploration or even forestry companies. There is no stench of corporate green-washing.

They do promote practises that can make (almost) any activity sustainable and non-injurious to the forest. This site seems that its main goal is not lobbying for Big Oil but promoting environmentalism that is compatible with industry. They are not even, from what I read, radical environmentalist. Their position seems to be ‘working with industry to preserve our forests’.

Oh, yes just in case you thought Chiquita was taking this stand for completely ethical reasons, I should point out it did it in response to environmental groups criticising Chiquita’s rival Dole for not making a strong stand against Tar Sands Oil…which led to Facebook embarrassment for Dole…a mistake Chiquita did not want to emulate so it came out against dirty Tar Sands oil. So, Chiquita is not so much an environmental warrior as an opportunistic PR campaign that happens to be the right thing to do.

I still like bananas.

One Response to “The dishonesty of “Ethical Oil””

  1. YolkRegion said

    I think you’ve nicely cracked the PR nut that Ezra Levant has planted. The entire “ethical oil” thing has morphed into a state propaganda campaign by providing talking points for Harper and his cronies. All of this detracts from the real issues:

    * digging up a vast area of Boreal forest
    * threatening caribou and dozens of Boreal forest birds and other wildlife
    * significant pollution of rivers and watersheds
    * impact on the health of communities downstream
    * effect of increased carbon emissions on climate change

    If this oil is “ethical”, are not the forests and rivers ethical also? If we lose these natural treasures to tar sands development, how long will it last? 35 or 40 years? What will be left at the end of it all?

    If Alberta tar sands must be developed, it should proceed slowly and cleanly. Foreign and domestic multinationals should pay the real environmental costs of extracting this oil. Also, to develop this oil “Ethically”, it should be refined in Canada, not shipped as bitumen in a pipeline. This would create even more jobs for people whose communities will be affected/destroyed by this kind of development.

    Let’s go one step further: a hefty chunk of tar sands profits should be used to develop sustainable solar and wind energy projects — energy sources that will still be there after the oil runs out. Then, perhaps we can talk about ethical oil.

    in a CCC

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