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What Is Ethical Oil?

Fort McMurray, Alberta - Operation Arctic Shadow
Fort McMurray, Alberta – Operation Arctic Shadow by kris krüg. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Petroleum industry boosters like to say that Canada should produce as much oil as possible because our ethical oil will crowd out oil from bad guys like Russia and Saudi Arabia. Suncor Energy CEO Rich Kruger made this argument just last week during his appearance before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources in Canada’s Parliament, when he said he believes the world is a better place when a barrel of oil comes from Canada compared to anywhere else in the world.

In this two-part series, I’m going to examine the thinking behind ethical oil and look at it through the lens of moral philosophy.

But first, a little history. We can thank Ezra Levant — an ex-lawyer who describes himself as a journalist and Rebel Commander at Rebel News — for the term ethical oil. Levant coined the phrase in his book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands (2010). He uses the term to defend the Canadian oil and gas industry and specifically Alberta’s tar sands. Ethical oil proponents argue that Canada’s government and industries are more democratic and ethical than other countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Hence, in their view, it is ethical to produce and use Canadian oil instead of foreign oil.

Levant went on to cofound the Ethical Oil Institute. In spite of its grand name, the institute has disappeared, leaving little trace. The most recent snapshot for the domain ethicaloil.org at the Internet Archive is from 2018, featuring a news feed from 2014. It now redirects to a single page on the Rebel News website. However, the term and concept live on in the minds and words of fossil fuel supporters in Alberta. 

Even the so-called “unethical” countries are using the same arguments to defend their production. Consider Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud’s recent speech at the 2023 World Petroleum Congress. He claimed that economic growth and prosperity is a higher priority than mitigating climate change. This is similar to recent comments made by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. 

It’s bizarre to me that people like Danielle Smith are defending the oil and gas industry, considering the harm it does to our economy, people and the environment. Stay tuned for the second article in this series, where I’ll dive into these details.

In this post, however, I’ll explain that Alberta’s oil and gas industry is unethical according to every significant ethical theory. I’ll also show that Alberta, contrary to what ethical oil proponents argue, contributes to climate change on a massive scale. 

But first, let’s delve into what the ethical in ethical oil means. Many of us use the word ethical to indicate that something is generally good, but philosophers use the word in a more precise and formal way. We must know what ethics means before deciding if Canada’s oil and gas industry is ethical.

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What Philosophers Say About Ethics

The Government of Canada has a nice definition of ethics as “…a branch of philosophy that is concerned with human conduct, more specifically the behaviour of individuals in society. Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments; it studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust.”

Ethics can be broken down into theories that philosophers created by applying logic to the question “what makes something right or wrong?”. I’ll argue that Canada’s oil and gas industry is unethical according to these prominent ethical theories — utilitarianism, hedonism, divine command theory, Kantianism, and moral relativism.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarian philosophers believe that an action is morally good if it maximizes the happiness or well-being of all impacted parties. 

Canada’s oil is not ethical according to utilitarianism. I’ll delve into this further below where I talk specifically about Alberta’s oil, but Canada directly contributes to climate change on a massive scale, and climate change does not maximize the happiness or well-being of all impacted parties.

As I mentioned in my previous article on forest fire smoke and climate change, my happiness and well-being are significantly impacted by forest fire-induced asthma attacks. 

But we must remember that as someone living in Canada, I’m one of the lucky ones. As the UN Chronicle notes, the world’s poorest suffer the worst effects of climate change, including diseases like dengue fever and malaria, severe weather events like tornadoes and floods, and water scarcity. Canada’s contribution to global climate change is having a significant impact on these people.

So, would a utilitarian say that Alberta’s oil is ethical? Hell no. 

Hedonism

The philosophy of hedonism says that an action is morally good if it maximizes pleasure and reduces pain. 

One could argue that the consumption of fossil fuels, especially in first-world countries, does maximize pleasure, but it only does so in the short term. I, for one, derive lots of pleasure from eating, and agriculture is expected to be heavily impacted by the changing climate.

According to the Government of Canada “…high temperatures can result in lower weight gains in livestock, reduced reproductive capacity, reduced milk and egg production, and in extreme cases, livestock mortality.

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Food is just one example of the many pleasures that will be impacted by climate change. Coral reefs are dying, the smoky air is ruining the hiking season, and heat waves are making it dangerous to walk in the park. I think the hedonist would say that producing and consuming fossil fuels is unethical, even if they come from from Canada. 

Divine Command Theory

A divine command theorist would say that an action is right if God says it is right. 

This ethical theory is pretty straightforward. There is a theme of environmental protection across most, if not all, major religions. The UN Environment Programme has a great article outlining what various religions say about the environment. It’s a short article, and well worth reading regardless of your faith.

For example, the article describes how the Buddhist notion of karma embodies sustainability this way: “It is said that the morality of our actions in the present will shape our character for the future, an idea close to sustainable development.”

It also has many references to environmental protection from Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, like this quote from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 2010: 

“We must treat nature with the same awe and wonder that we reserve for human beings. And we do not need this insight in order to believe in God or to prove his existence. We need it to breathe; we need it for us simply to be.”

Spiritual leaders across the globe advocate for environmental protection. Deities of all cultures are universally portrayed as Creators who protect their worlds. It’s safe to say that oil consumption is not ethical, according to the divine command theorist.

Kantianism

Kantian philosophers believe that an action is ethical if it does not involve using people and if it can be repeated in all circumstances. 

In her paper titled A Kantian Look at Climate Change (PDF icon), philosopher Casey Rentmeester explains Kantian ethics in unambiguous terms:

“Before you do an action, you are to ask yourself whether that action could be implemented as a command for all other rational creatures to follow as if it were a universal law. If it can be implemented in this way, it is right; if not, it is wrong.”

Kant argued that we should only intend to do actions that, if repeated by everyone in the world in a relative circumstance, would make the world a better place. For example, never lie because if lying became universal, trust would erode. 

He believed that humans are capable of rational thought and that we should apply this type of rational questioning to all our intentions. It’s easy to see how producing and burning oil would be unethical, according to Kant. If we universally, as a rule, burn fossil fuels, we will make the planet less inhabitable to humans, which is not rational. 

Casey provides an excellent example of this when she states that “If everyone were to simply stop driving cars to work and ride their bicycles instead, this would promote a healthy, sustainable Earth. Therefore, this action is right.”

Although Kant was alive 200 years ago, he would argue that consuming fossil fuels is unethical, again, whether they came from Canada or not.

Moral Relativism

A moral relativist would say that actions are not objectively morally right or wrong but are instead right or wrong in relation to the beliefs or convictions of an individual or a group of people.

Now with this one, you might think I’m crazy. If ethics are relative, then surely if some groups think Canada’s oil is ethical, so it is. But I would ask you to consider, culturally, what are Albertans’ ethical values? 

Albertans are diverse and can’t be lumped into one camp. But as a third-generation Albertan, I can say that overall we value honest hard work and being kind to our neighbours. Emphasis on “honest” hard work. I truly believe that most Albertans do not want to destroy the environment or contribute to global climate change.

Facts back me up. It may come as a shock, but according to polling done by the Pembina Institute in 2021, two thirds of Albertans are actually in favour of getting to net zero emissions by 2050!

These views have held up over time, too. In a poll released just last week, the Pembina Institute found that Albertans overwhelming believe that our economy will benefit if the oil and gas industry reduces emissions (58 per cent); oil and gas companies should pay for cleaning up inactive and abandoned wells (94 per cent); and oil and gas companies (not taxpayers) should bear the costs associated with reducing emissions (77 per cent).

We also can’t discuss Albertan culture without acknowledging the Indigenous Peoples that have lived in this area for thousands of years. The Law Society of Alberta puts this well in their land acknowledgment:

“We acknowledge that what we call Alberta is the traditional and ancestral territory of many peoples, presently subject to Treaties 6, 7, and 8. Namely: the Blackfoot Confederacy – Kainai, Piikani, and Siksika – the Cree, Dene, Saulteaux, Nakota Sioux, Stoney Nakoda, and the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the Métis People of Alberta. This includes the Métis Settlements and the Six Regions of the Métis Nation of Alberta within the historical Northwest Metis Homeland.”

Again there is vast diversity across these groups, but sustainability and respect for the land are a common cultural thread. 

The Metis Nation of Alberta, for example, has a helpful web page titled Environment & Climate Change which outlines their upcoming environmental events and provides a list of valuable resources. This is just one example of many when it comes to Indigenous climate advocacy in Alberta. 

I believe that relative to both colonial and Indigenous culture, producing and burning oil is unethical.

How Does Alberta’s Oil Stack Up?

One myth perpetuated by ethical oil propaganda is that Alberta produces a small fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions compared to other countries. But is this true? Ethically speaking, if we produce the product in Alberta but ship it elsewhere to be burned, we are still responsible for the impact on our climate.

As Andy wrote in his review of the CER’s Energy Future 2023 crude oil scenarios, Alberta’s oil is expected to produce 17,726 to 29,976 megatonnes of CO2 between now and 2050. This “…exceeds the combined 2019 emissions of the world’s top 10 emitting countries — China, United States, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Iran, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.”

For gas, the situation is similar. In his original review of the CER’s Energy Future 2021 gas scenario, Andy found:

Canada as a whole was the world’s fifth-largest gas producer in 2021 at 182,216 million cubic metres. If we count Alberta as a separate jurisdiction, it would be the world’s eleventh-largest producer at 101,290 million cubic metres. The eleventh-largest producer out of 90 gas-producing jurisdictions.”

In Andy’s update on the CER’s Energy Future 2023 gas scenarios, the numbers don’t look much better. 

Using data from the United States Energy Information Administration and the Canada Energy Regulator’s Evolving Policies Scenario, Andy found that Alberta’s gas is expected to emit between 3,880 to 6,591 megatonnes of CO2 between now and 2050.

That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of between 843,478,261 and 14,328,260,870 passenger vehicles (at 4.6 tonnes per vehicle).

Still not convinced that Alberta is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions? Then consider our carbon budget. 

In Alberta and the Carbon Budget, Andy explains that the carbon budget “… refers to the maximum quantity of greenhouse gases we can emit without exceeding 1.5℃ of average global warming.”

When comparing Alberta’s projected fossil fuel emissions with Carbon Brief’s 260 billion tonne carbon budget, he found that Alberta alone will use up 8–14 per cent of the budget — an astounding fact when you consider that Albertans only make up 0.05 per cent of the world’s population. 

Looking at numbers like these, it becomes clear that Alberta is directly contributing to climate change on a massive scale, and according to every major ethical theory, doing so is highly unethical. This is why “ethical oil” is nowhere near ethical. 

Keep an eye out for the upcoming second instalment of this article, where I’ll delve into the adverse impacts of Alberta’s oil and gas industry on individuals, the environment, wildlife, and our economic well-being.

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How Ethical Is Alberta’s Oil?

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