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Levant's oil polemic witty, but that doesn't make it right

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Ethical Oil

The Case For Canada's Oil Sands

By Ezra Levant

McClelland & Stewart, 232 pages, $30

IF you think Canada is as misogynistic as Saudi Arabia, as corrupt as Nigeria or as murderous as Sudan, you will find this entertaining polemic a revelation.

In it, the Calgary-based conservative Ezra Levant, author of Shakedown: How Our Government Is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, goes on at some length to persuade us that this country is more ethical than these three plus, for good measure, Venezuela, China, Russia and Iran. Who knew?

Levant's point is that we should stop complaining about producing oil from Alberta's tar sands because Canada is more moral and humane than most other oil-producing countries.

Levant is a good writer and a better debater. He is witty, provocative and relentless in his sense of certainty. He clearly has fun pillorying ethical investment funds, Greenpeace, the Pembina Institute and his bete noir, Calgary-based pro-green writer Andrew Nikiforuk.

He is also a master of logical fallacy and half-truth.

Canadians do not limit their ethical aspirations merely to being better than some of the most brutal countries in the world.

Of course, we are more ethical than they are but that has nothing to do with whether or not oil production in the tar sands is beyond criticism.

He points out that only 20 per cent of tar sands oil can be strip mined. The other 80 per cent will be drilled "not unlike the way normal oil is."

However, he doesn't dwell on the spectacular amounts of natural gas and Athabasca River water needed to melt the underground bitumen before it can be drilled. That's not like "the way normal oil is."

He boasts of a land reclamation project full of "gorgeous hiking trails, with forests and pristine lakes."

The Alberta government describes it as only 67 square kilometres out of 602-sq.-kms of tar sands mining activity.

Furthermore, a 2007 University of Alberta study reported that a vast area of the Athabasca River basin "cannot be reclaimed to its original condition and it is unlikely to be restored to any condition with equivalent hydrological function."

Levant describes the result of the Dr. John O'Connor controversy as "a fake cancer scare" and ignores the conclusion of the 2009 Alberta Cancer Board study that reported, "The number of cancer cases observed in Fort Chipewyan was higher than expected for all cancers combined."

The study also recommended further investigation to analyze potential risk factors, including environmental exposure.

Levant has no time for the argument that greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and other forms of pollution from tar sands oil production pose a unique threat to the atmosphere and the Athabasca River. However, he relies heavily, and somewhat disingenuously, on figures from the oil industry or organizations sympathetic to the industry.

For example, he states that "The (GHG) difference between the oil sands and the average barrel's cocktail of non-sands oil is already down to 10 per cent, according to independent studies."

He footnotes his source as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which describes itself as the voice of the Canadian petroleum industry. Independent?

Throughout the book, Levant positions the debate as being between trusting the oil industry and its supporters to protect the tar sands environment or shutting down the project altogether with consequent serious economic results.

He does not consider the middle ground, which is to slow the growth while developing more rational policies and procedures to deal with greenhouse gas, water, natural gas, infrastructure and royalty concerns. This is an approach supported by former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed.

Levant rightly urges us to make the effort to inform ourselves of the facts and determine the ethics of the tar sands according to our own less politicized standards.

That's good advice. Just remember that being witty, provocative and relentless is not the same as being right.

John. K. Collins, a retired union negotiator in Winnipeg, likes a good argument.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2010 H8

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