Dear Oprah,

I just don’t know where to begin.

I can’t find my words because I respect you so much. You’re a woman pioneer who has done much to advance the status of women globally. You’ve donated millions of dollars to various organizations, and have used your talk show to raise the profile of women’s issues. Your philanthopy has funded projects like The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, and Women for Women International. You’ve also used your celebrity to raise awareness of environmental causes, notably the efforts to rebuild the Gulf.

That’s why I’m so stumped right now by your choice to feature ads from EthicalOil.org on your television network.

I’m all about the work that you do, but the logic of promoting tar sands oil by appealing to our desire for women’s liberation, our desire to help protect women in despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, is deeply flawed and misguided.

The ad [below], which is airing exclusively on your network in Canada, claims that strict rules in Saudi Arabia prevent women from driving, from leaving their homes or working without their male guardian’s permission. With those sad facts firmly established, the ads powerfully appeal to our deep emotions about women’s rights, human rights and fundamental political freedoms by implying that by buying “conflict oil,” we are supporting oppression.

The ad presents Canada’s tar sands as an “ethical oil” alternative to “conflict oil.” At the end of the ad the viewer is told “It’s a choice we have to make.”

So, to be clear, the argument being put forward on your network is that expanding tar sands production will help liberate women from oppressive petrocracies like Saudi Arabia. It also appears to imply that we must support the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would massively expand tar sands production, because it will decrease our reliance on conflict oil.

Let’s unpack this argument a little further.

I agree with you that Saudi Arabia abuses women’s rights. But let’s be perfectly clear: the link that this ad campaign tries to make — that expanding tar sands production will somehow liberate Saudi Arabian women — doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The choice about whether or not to buy bitumen from the tar sands has no real effect on Saudi Arabia’s oil revenues. We live in a world that is hungrier and hungrier for the stuff. The United States and Canada combined hold less than five per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Increasing output from the tar sands won’t substantially decrease our reliance on foreign oil, and it won’t reduce the world’s demand for Saudi Arabia’s crude.

Kate Sheppard aptly notes in Mother Jones that even with increased tar sands output, Saudi Arabia will continue to have the largest oil reserves in the world and be the world’s largest exporter. Expanding the tar sands just makes it easier for us to keep delaying the transition to clean energy.

Glenn Hurowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, does a great job of debunking this claim. Basic oil industry economics show that the argument that domestic drilling will reduce consumption of foreign oil is deeply flawed. Here’s how it works:

Because Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil is so much cheaper to produce and more plentiful than remaining domestic oil reserves, those countries can almost always outcompete domestic U.S. competitors and still maintain their enormous profit margins and high levels of production. Saudi and Iraqi oil, for instance, costs just $4-$6 per barrel to produce with another $2-$3 tacked on for transportation costs (costs are similar for Iranian oil). Production costs for tar-sands oil clock in at a minimum of $30 per barrel; costs for other domestic sources are similar.

Increasing the output of the tar sands is thus not going to hurt Saudi Arabia oil coffers in any meaningful way.

Mike G at the Rainforest Action Network notes that TransCanada’s own research demonstrates that the raison d’être of the Keystone XL pipeline was never to decrease our reliance on foreign oil from “unfriendly regimes.” We will have to continue importing just as much oil from Saudi Arabia. The pipeline is designed to keep Gulf Coast refineries running at capacity, not to replace current oil imports.

Oprah, let’s not use these women as pawns to support tar sands extraction in Canada. You can support women’s liberation efforts. You can oppose development of the tar sands. To say the least, these issues are not mutually exclusive.

The Ethical Oil ads airing in Canada are duplicitous, and use the worst kind of fear mongering and manipulation tactics to sell us the filthiest oil on the planet.

Speaking of duplicitous manipulation, the people behind the Ethical Oil blog and ad claim to be a small Toronto-based NGO to hide deep connections to the Alberta oil industry. Oprah, I’m curious to understand how a small non-profit managed to land a featured spot on your network.

I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that neither you nor your production company are directly funded by tar sands interests. But if you really believe that EthicalOil.org is a small grassroots non-profit concerned with the plight of women, you’ve been sorely misled.

According to Deep Climate, Ethical Oil isn’t the low budget grassroots organization it purports to be. Its principals are some of the rising stars of the conservative movement in Canada, and one is a lawyer for tar sands firms.

Here’s the back story: Ezra Levant turned “ethical oil” into a meme late last year. Almost overnight, pro-industry and government officials, keen to sell the filthy oil to a skeptical public, picked up the term and ran with it. After the Conservative election victory in May, Conservative government spokesperson (and former American Enterprise Institute intern) Alykhan Velshi took over at the helm of the ethicaloil.org blog. The blog is registered to Levant, who also has strong links to the Conservatives.

And, here’s another thing that just doesn’t add up for me. How is it that a former advisor to Environment Minister John Baird, and communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, would find himself taking an “unpaid” job as a blogger?

Thanks to the folks over at Deep Climate, it makes a lot more sense. EthicalOil.org is connected to the obscure Ethical Oil Institute. Though there is scant reference to them online, according to their notice of incorporation, the institute was registered on March 9, 2011 to an Edmonton address, 12220 Stony Plain Road, Edmonton AB T5N 3Y4.

That just so happens to be the address of the law firm McLennan Ross. McLennan Ross makes bathtubs full of money doing work for tar sands firms.

The two members of the Ethical Oil Institute’s board of directors are Ezra Levant and McLellan Ross partner Thomas Ross. Thomas Ross is one of ten lead partners in McLellan Ross’s OilSandsLaw.com initiative, a “slick new oilsands cross-selling strategy” and marketing campaign.

And this makes me question EthicalOil.org’s PayPal donation statement that clearly maintains it “will not take money from foreign corporations, foundations, governments, or lobbyists.” The evidence that’s stacking up sure seems to suggest otherwise.

Oprah, sorry to break it to you, but the facts suggest that EthicalOil.org is just a really clever PR tool for the oil industry.

To echo the EthicalOil.org ad, “It’s a choice we have to make”. To that I ask you, what’s your choice going to be? If you want to support women’s liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia, why don’t you fund women’s liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia?

Oprah, this is what I know for sure: There’s nothing ethical about oil, no matter where it comes from. If you actually want to take on Saudi sheiks, then support a transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.


Emma Pullman, Vancouver B.C.

This post first appeared on DeSmogBlog.

Emma Pullman

Emma Pullman

Emma Pullman is a Vancouver-based writer, researcher and campaigner focused on climate and sustainability issues. She is a contributor at DeSmog Blog where her research focuses on Canadian climate issues,...