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'Ethical oil' claim misleads

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There's nothing ethical about Canada's "ethical oil."

A 2009 Industry Canada report found that 54 per cent of Canada's loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs since 2002 is due to the oil sands boom replacing good, stable employment with short-term construction work in the tar sands and low-wage service sector jobs elsewhere in the economy.

What is ethical about turning the Canadian currency into a booming petrodollar, giving Canada the "Dutch Disease?"

Canada has lost one-third of its post-war gains in value-added (manufactured) exports since 1999/2000, Canadian Auto Workers senior economist Jim Stanford told the Institute for Competiveness and Productivity in 2008.

"The tar sands destroy more jobs than they create," says University of Alberta political economist Gordon Laxer. "They account for about 40 per cent of the increase in the value of the Canadian dollar."

"Ethical oil" is the brainchild of Ezra Levant. The Conservative political activist is soon to be the prime time talk show host on Sun TV and presumably, Canada's answer to Fox News' Glenn Beck. He recently published Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands. It argues that Canada is a first-world democracy that respects human rights and the environment, unlike Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and should use this to challenge opposition in the U.S. to tar sands oil. Levant's book immediately became the talk of Ottawa and the theme of new Environment Minister Peter Kent's first media interview: "There has been a demonizing of a legitimate resource," Kent told the Calgary Herald on Jan. 5, the day after he was sworn in. "It's ethical oil, 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."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper echoed him a day later in Welland, Ont. "The reality is that Canada is a very ethical society and a very secure source of energy for the U.S., compared to other sources, so that's a major asset that we want to explain to the rest of the world."

Laxer calls the ethical oil argument "a massive re-branding effort" by the oil industry to bury the "dirty oil'' moniker used by critics. "What's ethical about tar sands oil that produces three times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil?" he asks. What's ethical about using three barrels of water for every barrel of tar sands oil? What's ethical about devouring two tonnes of earth for every barrel of tar sands oil?

"What's ethical about producing all these greenhouse gases and Canada and Alberta having no plans to lower them? We're risking human life, other life, the biosphere and what are we doing it for? To fuel what George W. Bush says is America's addiction to oil. What's ethical about having no concern for Canada's oil needs?"

Seventy per cent of Canada's tar sands production goes to the U.S., Laxer continued in an interview. Meanwhile, Canada is importing more than 50 per cent of the oil it uses from offshore, presumably "unethical" sources.

He argues there is simply no way to "green" the tar sands. He wants Canada and Alberta to cap tar sands production and phase them out. "We have enough conventional oil to live on it as it slowly declines for the next 20 years, time to institute a plan to get off fossil fuels."

He points out that Sweden, a sparsely populated northern country like Canada, uses just half as much oil per capita as Canada. Britain uses 40 per cent. "If they can do it, so can Canada."

All this points to a basic flaw in the tar sands "ethical oil" argument: Canadians are being asked to be "unethical" so Americans can be "ethical?"

The ethical oil strategy tells environmentalists that the file is being run directly from the PMO.

Corrupt government and human rights violations are unethical. But equally unethical, particularly for a first-world country like Canada, is to abandon good jobs for Canadians and its international obligations to conserve land, water, air and at-risk species.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2011 A11

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