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Is There Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'? Canada Claims it Has Lots and the US Is Buying It

Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

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Dr. John O’Connor, an Irishman who has been the primary physician in Ft. McKay for 12 years, says he has witnessed a number of ailments that he believes are linked to chemical exposure. “There’s been an increase, especially in the last two years, an exponential increase in difficult-to-manage respiratory problems,” O’Connor told me. “And a lot of skin problems, whole families coming in with persistent and peculiar rashes.”

Dr. O’Connor said that most recently he has seen an alarming number of people (“a couple of dozen”) who are suffering from vitiligo, a splotchy de-pigmentization of the skin medical experts believe might be linked to autoimmune disease. O’Connor told me that the irony of the affliction has not been lost on his patients. The native people of Ft. McKay are -- in a real, physical way -- turning white.

Forty-five minutes south of Ft. McKay is Ft. McMurray, the boomtown at the heart of the oil bonanza (See “ After the Goldrush”). There, people’s opinions about the tar sands are far less conflicted. Ft. McMurray is a company town, and people there are, without fail, proud of their work and feel that they do dangerous jobs for the rest of us who depend on their product. “Dirty or whatever you want to call it, you still have to start your engines with it,” one Suncor employee said. They are also touchy and defensive, stung by the persistent criticism of what they do. “Because we’re Canada, we’re supposed to be perfect; we’re held to a higher standard,” another worker said. The prevailing opinion is that the mines and upgraders, as ugly as they may be, are a necessary evil. “It’s all dirty,” an oil services worker told me over beers. Then he leaned over the bar and said, “As long as the Americans need this oil, we’ll be here.”

The combination of pride and resentment is an echo of the tar sands’ best-known apologist, a conservative Canadian author named Ezra Levant. His 2010 book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands , has become the definitive defense of the industry. While trickling down to rank-and-file workers, Levant’s arguments have also percolated up to the highest levels of government. The notion of “ethical oil” has become the basis of Canada’s energy policy.

In early January, the Conservative Party government’s new Environment Minister Peter Kent kicked off a controversy when he directly parroted Levant. “It is ethical oil,” Kent said of the tar sands. “It is regulated oil. And it’s secure oil in a world where many of the free world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.” A few days later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- the son of an Imperial Oil accountant -- defended Kent’s remark, saying, “The reality is that Canada is a very ethical society and a very secure source of energy for the United States, compared to other sources.”

If this is the standard by which the tar sands’ backers wish to promote the industry, then it’s only fair to ask: Is the oil oozing out of Alberta truly ethically justifiable? The answer represents nothing less than a test of North Americans’ moral compass.

The core of Levant’s argument is this: “Canada is one of the most hospitable places in the world to live, offering democracy, a stalwart commitment to the rule of law, and economic freedom.” This is a repetition of an argument long made by US foreign policy makers and their petroleum vendors in Calgary and Edmonton. The geographic proximity and cultural affinity between the United States and Canada offers a more reliable energy source than do the despots and crackpots in the Middle East, North Africa, or Venezuela. But Levant goes beyond the energy security claim to make a broader case that Canada’s oil is morally superior. “On every key measure, from women’s rights, to gay rights, to Aboriginal rights, to the sharing of the oil wealth equitably among workers, to environmental protection, Canada is hands down the most ethical major exporter of oil in the world.”

 
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