A Slippery Debate

Black-and-white moralizing about the oil sands slides too easily into caricature.

I first met Ezra Levant in the depths of CTV’s Calgary studios, a hallway encounter that only lasted a few seconds, just long enough for the pugilist-conservative to grin and to flash a thumbs-up in my direction.

My thumb-worthy deed? I had made an offhand remark on air a few minutes earlier that Albertans remained unhappy about the National Energy Program. That was enough to put me on the right side of his political ledger.

There are no neutrals in Ezra Levant’s world, just a tally of allies and of enemies that need continued thrashing. The first group gets a thumb, as I found out. The latter group gets the finger, which any reader of Levant’s latest polemic, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, will quickly discover.

In what purports to be a “moral inventory,” Levant ranges far beyond the typical economic defence of Alberta’s bitumen deposits, namely that the resulting jobs, revenue and public income justify the hefty environmental costs.

For Levant, the best defence is an all-out frontal assault. So, he argues that the oil sands are not just an economic asset, but an ethical one as well, a source of energy that can displace the theocratic and misogynistic crude of the Middle East, the gangster oil of Russia and the authoritarian petroleum of China. “Every drop of oil from Alberta is one less drop from some fascist theocracy, or some brutal warlord; one less cent into the treasuries of Russia’s secret police and al-Qaeda’s murderers.”

In reaching that conclusion, Levant forthrightly states that he is looking to shift the terms of debate over the oil sands from one of absolute critique to comparative virtues.

“The question is not whether we should use oil sands oil instead of some perfect fantasy fuel that hasn’t been invented yet,” he writes in the introduction. “Until that miracle fuel is invented, the question is whether we should use oil from the oil sands or oil from the other places in the world that pump it. That’s what this book tries to answer.”

Presumably the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico came too late to be included in this book. Even without a direct mention, the Gulf spill gives added urgency to the question Levant poses.

In his artfully constructed—but fundamentally flawed—answer to that question, Canada’s oil sands are an exemplar of our country’s dedication to human rights, economic equity, aboriginal justice and (most importantly) environmental stewardship. The keystone in Levant’s argument is that the oil sands are not as environmentally destructive as their critics paint the industry; indeed, he goes further to claim, quite wrongly, that the industry is better for the planet than many other sources of crude.

More on that later—for now, it is sufficient to note that the picture of eco-friendly oil sands is central to the entire case that Levant lays out. Without it, the many merits of Canada’s oil industry (democratic oversight, aboriginal engagement, well-­considered royalty systems) fade into ­irrelevance.

The title of Levant’s book is a considerable misstatement. Ethical Oil is not so much an argument for Canada’s oil sands as it is a series of ferocious assaults: environmentalists, ethical fund investors, Russians, Saudi Arabia, aboriginals, Al Gore, China, Spain’s windmills, Burma’s military dictatorship and fried chicken—yes, fried chicken—are condemned in turn.

The point of this extensive list of enemies is to show that the critics of the oil sands are not just wrong or misguided; they are also dishonest schemers or, at best, opportunistic snipers. In Levant’s world, Greenpeace’s objections to the oil sands are just a means of harvesting fundraising dollars. “A Greenpeace campaign without a target to hate is like a war without an enemy,” he writes in Chapter 8, “Greenpeace’s Best Fundraiser Ever.” (One could just as easily wonder how Ezra Levant would fare without leftists to kick around.)

The questions that Levant raises, if not the answers he provides, are worthy of consideration: it is fair to ask why environmentalists lavish disproportionate attention on western oil producers, and on the oil sands in particular. China’s state-owned companies do get off rather lightly; Venezuela’s state-dictated industry, despite its geological similarities to Alberta’s bitumen deposits, is seldom excoriated. On the other hand, one could scarcely imagine more attention being paid to the flaring of Nigerian natural gas by Shell, a peculiar misstatement by Levant.

He is on stronger ground when dissecting the health scare in Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the oil sands mining heartland. Claims of cancer clusters in the community—eventually disproved—have figured prominently in the anti–oil sands camp since a local doctor raised the alarm four years ago. William Marsden’s book, Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care), among others, highlighted the dramatic, but erroneous, claims of Dr. John O’Connor that a rare liver cancer was sweeping the northern ­community.

For Marsden, Alberta and its oil sands are singularly culpable for climate change sins in Canada. His book’s original title, Albertans Are Stupid, drives home the point. For Levant, the diametrical opposite is true: Albertans are blameless, and the oil sands are beyond reproach. Together, these two polemicists create a pair of blame-passing bookends; each is adept at talking past the real nature of the problem of the oil sands, namely that they are an immense asset that benefits all Canadians, and that each of us bears the responsibility for their environmental costs.

There are other positives in this book. Ethical Oil rightly points out the admirable record of aboriginal engagement by the oil sands, which has provided high-paying jobs to that historically disadvantaged constituency. And it is no small accomplishment to turn the dense subjects of carbon intensities and other oil sands minutiae into a breezy read. Levant’s book suffers from several flaws, but a lack of passion and a lack of humour are not among them. It takes a bit of a mischievous streak, and a lot of cheek, to defend the duck deaths at Syncrude by noting that the number of birds slain by Toronto highrises, KFC and Chinese restaurants is much higher.

However correct those side arguments are, and however engaging Levant’s writing, this is all mere sparring when set against the main event of the oil sands debate—its environmental performance, particularly on climate change. Levant bravely attempts to broaden that debate, noting that levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are lower in Fort McMurray than in major metropolitan centres, an utterly unsurprising revelation given that motor vehicles are the major source of those emissions.

Still, Levant recognizes that he must make the case that the oil sands are not disproportionately villainous when it comes to climate change. He makes two key claims, the first being that the oil sands have a shrinking footprint. “In reality, the oil sands are more environmentally progressive and emit less waste than all sorts of other common industries in Canada and around the world. In just nineteen years, from 1990 to 2009, the intensity of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the oil sands has plummeted by 38 per cent. In other words, every barrel of oil extracted in 2009 took between one-third and one-half less GHGs to produce than a barrel extracted in 1990—and the emissions continue to fall every year.”

Levant’s second claim is that oil sands crude is less damaging than other kinds of oil: “Alberta’s so-called carbon footprint is actually less of an issue than many other kinds of oil being produced around the world. Relative to other sources of petroleum, the oil sands look better and better all the time.”

Parts of each claim are correct, but neither is true in its entirety. Yes, the oil sands are becoming more efficient, resulting in less energy being used to manufacture a barrel of synthetic oil. But the number of barrels has soared dramatically at the same time, meaning that the overall level of emissions—the only measurement worth discussing—has inexorably risen.

The second claim is even more slippery. It is true that there are oil sources with heavier carbon footprints than Alberta’s bitumen deposits, particularly when all emissions, including shipping, are considered. The problem is, they are not the types of oil—Saudi, Nigerian and Venezuelan—that Levant says should be displaced in favour of the oil sands. According to a study commissioned by the provincially funded Alberta Energy Research Institute, just one type of crude, from California, can be credibly called dirtier oil than that from the province’s oil sands. Oil sands mining projects, despite their efficiency gains, generate 15 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel than Saudi crude. Steam-extraction projects (which Levant correctly notes are the focus of expansion in the industry) fare even worse.

The reality is that Alberta’s oil sands generate more carbon emissions than comparable sources of crude, and its emissions continue to rise sharply and will for decades to come, with the blessing of the Alberta government. Levant seeks to obscure this essential truth, but he cannot, at least not outside the confines of his narrowly constructed argument. While there are other missteps in this book, those two shortcomings mean that Levant fails to make the case for ethical oil.

That does not mean there is not a case to be made. But to do so requires a frank examination of the benefits and costs of the oil sands, and a real commitment to minimize the environmental fallout from exploiting Alberta’s bitumen riches.

The essence of the ethical case for the oil sands is this: so long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, we should not expect other people in distant places to pay the environmental price, particularly when we have the resources to mitigate the damage. It is base hypocrisy to argue that the oil sands should be shut down if the only result is to shift the environmental damage outside of the easy gaze of Canadian eyes.

This rationale only holds up, however, if the costs are proportionate to the benefits. And we must be clear-eyed about the most significant costs: a destroyed ecosystem (the boreal forest of northern Alberta), a marked increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a threat—but only that—of a catastrophic leak from toxic tailings ponds into the Athabasca River.

We need to be equally clear-eyed about the benefits: thousands of jobs and prosperity, including for swathes of Canadian society that would otherwise be mired in the misery of permanent unemployment; billions in government revenue to pay for social services enjoyed by the entire nation; geo-political stability, in the form of lessened dependence on Middle East oil; safety, when compared to the perils of deep sea drilling; and the ability, if not yet the propensity, to use that wealth to speed the move to a fossil fuel–free economy.

In my view, the costs are considerable, but are outweighed by the benefits. The oil sands do generate more greenhouse gases than other sources of crude, but the gap is not so large that it cannot be substantially closed through better technology and more rigorous efficiency measures, including greater regulatory scrutiny of marginal projects. The oil sands represent a safe, and secure, source of supply that can become a springboard to a post-petroleum future.

But in order to truly make an ethical case for the oil sands, we must do more than simply skim the public and private profits from Alberta’s bitumen deposits. We need to use that wealth to get on the springboard. The fairest way to do so is through a comprehensive carbon tax, applied to any fossil fuel used in Canada, and ramping up annually. And, wonder of all wonders, a carbon tax would levy a heavy burden on heavy energy users, including the oil sands. Correctly designed, a federal carbon tax would give an added push to the efficiency drive in the oil sands, while providing billions for alternative energy technologies—while avoiding any punitive targeting and taxation of Alberta’s energy sector.

The practical barriers to such an ethical approach are obvious, including the wariness of the federal Liberals to repeat their 2008 election debacle over a (poorly conceived) carbon tax, the unwillingness of the federal Conservatives to address climate change meaningfully and the readiness of Alberta to take instant offence to any external measure aimed at its oil sands.

The biggest barrier of all, however, is the Canadian attitude that climate change is someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem. For many outside of Alberta, it is the oil sands, and only the oil sands, that need to pay the price for reining in greenhouse gases. For too many Albertans, including Ezra Levant, the oil sands bear no culpability at all.

To build an ethical case for continuing to exploit the oil sands, we must first be honest. And that honesty means admitting that we all benefit, we are all to blame—and that we can act together to make amends.