First of a series on the politics of oil and Canada’s climate change goals.

Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Peter Kent think they have come up with a game changer on the environment. When you hear about the many issues surrounding the development of the Alberta bitumen sands, they want you to answer that in spite of all that, Canada’s “ethical oil” is the best, considering the alternatives.

“Ethical oil” is the notion that Alberta bitumen is an “ethical” source of energy that Americans should choose compared to oil from OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria and Venezuela where, it is alleged, oil production assists dictators and human rights abuses. The “ethical oil” idea is the brain child of right-wing spinner Ezra Levant whose book by the same name is the speakers’ notes for PM Harper and Kent.

Let’s sort out the spin. Ethics are a human guide to action based on a moral code governing our appreciation of right and wrong. Conservatives have their ethics; I have mine. But there is nothing ethical or unethical about oil, or bitumen, and there is no such thing as “ethical oil.” There are, of course, substantive environmental, social and economic issues about bitumen production, from greenhouse gas emissions and toxics to exporting jobs down pipelines. And these issues have nothing to do with human rights in OPEC countries.

Even if we accept that ethics vary according to the moral code we carry, keeping one’s commitments is fundamental to most ethical frameworks. That happens to be an ethical problem for Harper’s government which is at the root of Canada’s disrepute in international climate change conferences. His government not only failed to keep its treaty commitments, it didn’t even try. To have done so would have required regulating our oil industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

What about comparisons of the political regimes that govern oil production? If the point is to benchmark public policy between oil producing nations, let’s begin with Norway. It is an industrial democracy like Canada, but greatly surpasses our record on environment, jobs and public benefits from its oil resources.

If the point is to convince Canadians and Americans that our bitumen is preferable to OPEC crude on the basis of human rights, it must be explained why it is otherwise acceptable that Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada together import 70 per cent of their crude oil supply in significant part from these same countries. Surely the “ethical” choice would be to supply ourselves with our own “ethical oil.”

However it is the opposite that is taking place and over 500 workers at the Montreal Shell refinery are losing their jobs this month as a result. While the conservatives desperately campaign in the United States for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline which will bring almost a million barrels per day of ethical Canadian bitumen to Texas, the production at the Montreal refinery will now be replaced by increased imports of crude oil and refined gasoline coming by tanker across the Atlantic.


It can only be a case of election fever that has convinced the PM and his rookie Minister to make a circus out of serious issues and reduce themselves to sounding like barkers at a country fair with an oily come-on like this. It’s obvious they want to change the frame for the debate around oil politics — but running down the ethics of OPEC countries won’t convince anyone that everything is OK with the way Harper is managing greenhouse gases, water, toxics and jobs in this country.


There is a reason that the Conservatives want to change channels on the environment debate enough to risk ridicule by dousing themselves in “ethical oil.” They are now retreating from the only commitment they ever made on climate change and the bitumen sands: to follow the Americans. More on that next posting.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is a retired Unifor activist and author of a New Kind of Union (Lorimer 2019).