For as long as I’ve lived in Alberta and covered the oil and gas industry — more than a decade now — I’ve been hearing about its supposedly high ethical standard. This is the heart of Ezra Levant’s “ethical oil” argument that has become an incredibly popular mantra among people working in the oil and gas industry and those outside it who just don’t want to confront the reality of Alberta’s role in climate change.
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, this is an inherently — and inescapably — flawed argument. It compares Canada to countries like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, a far lower standard than most Canadians hold themselves to. It ignores the existence of Norway, a major oil producer with far lower greenhouse gas emissions and far higher taxes on production. And it pretends the oil and gas industry is in some way responsible for Canada’s progressive attitude towards LGBTQ rights, its treatment of women and minorities, and its comparatively robust regulatory environment.
In reality, the oil and gas industry has lobbied aggressively against the things it wants credit for, from carbon pricing to environmental regulations. Despite talking up Canada’s progressive attitude towards same-sex marriage, its leaders were conspicuously silent when then-premier Ralph Klein threatened to use the notwithstanding clause on the federal government’s legalization of it. And the number of women and minorities in senior leadership positions in that industry remains lower than other major industries in Canada.
But the biggest problem is that the industry constantly undermines its argument with its own behaviour. The latest example of this, and one of the worst I’ve seen in a long time, is the leak coming from an Imperial Oil tailings pond — one that’s leached millions of litres of toxic water into the ground. This is water that has things like arsenic and dissolved metals in it, and it’s been leaking since last May. But the public only just learned about it, and worse, so did communities directly downstream of the leak, like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The Alberta government also failed to notify its peers in the Northwest Territories, which is further downstream and would stand to be affected by any release of toxic chemicals.
Imperial insists the spill poses no threat to water or wildlife, even as it admits it doesn’t know exactly how much toxic sludge was actually released from the site. But Allan Adam, the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, isn’t buying Imperial’s assurances. “I just got back from an elders meeting and I told everyone to get rid of whatever you harvested. Throw it out. Don’t even feed it to your dogs,” he told The Guardian.
This isn’t just a black eye for Imperial Oil. It’s also a reflection on the regulatory system as a whole, one that seems almost completely captured by the industry it’s supposed to regulate. “I told the company and I told the regulator that a simple phone call would have cost you less than five bucks. A simple phone call,” Adam said. “Look at what it’s going to cost you now.”
It’s more proof — as if more was even needed — of why the United Conservative Party government’s efforts to chase down the industry’s supposed enemies in the environmental community are so futile. The tens of millions of public dollars it spent on the War Room only resulted in a bunch of bad press and an embarrassing fight with a cartoon Bigfoot movie, while the public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns served up a big fat nothing burger.
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But even if those operations had been run more competently, they still wouldn’t undo the damage the industry they seem hellbent on protecting does to itself on a regular basis. All the bulletproof armour in the world can’t protect you when you’re constantly shooting yourself in the foot.
The Kearl spill, after all, isn’t the only round the industry has fired off lately.
In addition to its growing inventory of leaky tailings ponds and thousands of unreclaimed and orphaned wells it hasn’t cleaned up, it’s also shorting rural communities on their property taxes. As the Rural Municipalities of Alberta noted in a recent statement, that bill actually grew over the last 12 months — the most profitable year in the industry’s history — to $268 million. That’s a 6.1 per cent increase over 2021, and a 231.5 per cent increase since 2018. And while some of these outstanding taxes are from companies that went bankrupt in the past, nearly half are owed by those still operating. “If property tax payments are ignored,” RMA president Paul McLauchlin said, “what other environmental or regulatory responsibilities will the province look the other way on next?”
It’s long past time for the Alberta government to remember that its job here is to properly regulate, not defend, this multibillion-dollar industry. Even the best marketing campaign in the world can’t help sell a product that consistently advertises its own flaws and failures, and a hundred Greta Thunbergs couldn’t do the sort of damage to the Alberta oil and gas industry’s reputation that it keeps doing to itself. Former premier Jim Prentice got in all sorts of trouble for encouraging Albertans to “look in the mirror,” but that’s exactly what the leaders of its biggest industry ought to do the next time they want to complain about their reputation.
"It’s long past time for the
"It’s long past time for the Alberta government to remember that its job here is to properly regulate, not defend, this multibillion-dollar industry."
The fossil fuel industry has been "controlling" the complicit Alberta (and Federal, for that matter) government for DECADES! Why stop now when you've got a willing accomplice?
One only has to read the details of this relationship in books such as Tar Sands (Nikiforuk) and Slick Water (Nikiforuk), let alone Oil's Deep State (Taft) and The Big Stall (Gutstein) to realize how corrupt the industry and government are in this regard. In a real democracy, none of this would be allowed to happen. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Start reading.
All true, and again we're
All true, and again we're faced with the truly astounding and astronomical ability of people to consistently and utterly ignore any evidence contrary to their cherished "beliefs, " making conservatism here indistinguishable from religion. And because these beliefs are emotionally intertwined with personal identities, any challenge leads to doubling down and seeking comfort from their tribe, a.k.a. the f*ing big, black truck club.
Ironically (and infuriatingly), despite being primarily emotion-based, these real prairie men tend to confidently relegate emotion to the female domain. Obviously these guys can't handle the truth, as Jack Nicholson famously said.
I've read 'Oil's Deep State'
I've read 'Oil's Deep State' (Kevin Taft, 2015) and found it pierced right into the heart of the issue: the takeover of the Alberta government by the oil industry. Highly recommended.
One down, three to go.
Fawcett: "The 'ethical oil'
Fawcett: "The 'ethical oil' argument compares Canada to countries like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, a far lower standard than most Canadians hold themselves to."
Indeed. The word "ethical" has absolute meaning. It is not defined relative to what your neighbour or competitor is doing. It is certainly not defined relative to the worst of class: Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
"Ethical" is like pass or fail. If you score lower than 50% on a math test, you fail. If you score higher than 50%, you pass. If you score 48% on a math test while your friends score even lower, their more obvious failure does not give you a pass.
Given massive pollution, habitat devastation, and climate change, there is no ethical production of fossil fuels.
Another fudge word is "responsible" — as in Canada is a "responsible" O&G producer or "responsible" development. The word "responsible" is devoid of meaning here.
Is Canada an ethical supplier of asbestos? Tobacco? Landmines? Horse meat?
Whose oil is most environmentally responsible? Which dictators are most democratic? Whose landmines are most humane? Whose tobacco is most healthy?
Canada's oil is no more ethical than Canada's asbestos and tobacco are.
Ethical Oil™ is a pernicious argument of convenience.
Fawcett: "The latest example
Fawcett: "The latest example of this, and one of the worst I’ve seen in a long time, is the leak coming from an Imperial Oil tailings pond."
Not an isolated incident. All oilsands tailings ponds leak. All the time. Interception systems do not capture all leakage. Tailings leakage, contamination, and the threat to public health are ongoing.
"Syncrude’s own calculations show approximately 785 million litres of tailings fluid had 'migrated' past the collection ditches in 2017. That’s equivalent to enough drinking water for a million people for a full year.":
"It’s official: Alberta’s oilsands tailings ponds are leaking. Now what?" (The Narwhal, Dec. 14, 2020)
Fawcett: "Imperial insists
Fawcett: "Imperial insists the spill poses no threat to water or wildlife, even as it admits it doesn’t know exactly how much toxic sludge was actually released from the site."
As the Canadian Press reported yesterday, federal scientists confirmed that the leak harmed fish — denials by Imperial Oil, the AER, and Govt of AB to the contrary.
"Ottawa deems Alberta oilsands leak harmful to wildlife; issues pollution stop order" (National Observer, March 13 2023)
The O&G culture in Alberta, and indeed globally, is pathological — just the opposite of ethical. Posing endless perils to our environment, climate, wildlife, public health, and democracy.
The federal government needs
The federal government needs to come down very hard on Imperial. It needs to send the message that this 19th Century industrial strategy of dump-and-forget must stop. It cannot tiptoe around anymore, like it's afraid of the electoral repercussions in Alberta. Trudeau being hated there is irrelevant.
This is about upholding national environmental standards, and maintaining those standards across provincial boundaries which the rivers cross and which then falls exclusively into federal jurisdiction once crossed.
There was a growing sense of
There was a growing sense of embarrassment when admitting one grew up in Alberta, even when one left 44 years ago with the last wave of lefty hippies.
After Rachel Notley threatened Metro Vancouver cities in particular and all coastal communities in 2017, part of her kneejerk reaction to BC's resistance to TMX, I vowed to family and friends there to not return. My last close elder passed in 2015, and with her the central impetus to spend time there evaporated.
Today, that embarrassment has turned to shame. And I kept my word.
Now we need to figure out how to cut all economic ties to Alberta. I am on the fence about EVs, but this Imperial Oil fiasco has pushed me closer. Currently we own a very efficient econobox that we won't be driving much in the near future, which means that we'll still burn Alberta oil, even if it's less than five litres a month. We'll be looking more seriously at a small EV for those occasional heavy cargo loads before too long. We live in a walkable community and could go carless 95% of the time, but being seniors with the accompanying mobility issues means that last 5% would be torture. Car share exists, but local availability is an issue, along with our earned reluctance to share any responsibilities with others who could be less conscientious.
One way or another, we're more motivated than ever to sever all ties to Alberta.
The of the so-called
The of the so-called "conservative movement" is basically owned by Big Oil, worldwide. Most people who lean conservative have no idea. The people of Alberta are in an abusive relationship with Big Oil and don't realize it. When Stelmach tried to get them a better deal their beloved oil industry didn't say "You deserve a raise in Alberta because we love you so much" they basically instituted a boycott. Did Albertans blame Big Oil for what happened? No. Exactly like when a third party intervenes in an abusive relationship on the victim's behalf they attacked the intervenor, Stelmach. I'm not sure what the wake-up call will be. When there's no more glaciers to feed Prairie agriculture? When there's no more skiing in Alberta?
I checked out when the oil
I checked out when the oil companies didn't distance themselves from the War Room. "We appreciate the support, but, damn, guys, that's a crazy-ass conspiracy theory. Down that road lies madness. Sure, we disagree with the various Green activists, but we don't think they are in a conspiracy with foreign oil producers to shutter Canadian competition. Hell, we ARE those foreign competitors, under other corporate umbrellas, and we aren't competing with ourselves!"
This is the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. Gulf War I was sold partly with a lie about babies in incubators, but that could be proven a lie. The Iraq War was sold with a conspiracy theory about Saddam conspiring with his own worst enemies, the Islamist fanatics who hated him, whom he'd killed an tortured. It was a *nutty* conspiracy theory, and it was sold with government funds, from government podiums.
I think that Alberta selling the conspiracy theory about Canadian activists and foreign oil companies is the only other officially-sold conspiracy theory by a government. $30M/year to sell it. Christ.
Those were all propaganda
Those were all propaganda excuses. The reason was control of Iraq oil.
These companies would also
These companies would also have us believe that there is no evidence that plastics are harmful to the environment and wildlife and are taking the federal government to court over their ban on single use plastics. They couldn't be any more unethical.