The Ethics of the Ethical Oil Cabal

With the recent demonstrations in Ottawa against the Alberta tarsands and the XL oil pipeline, most of the mainstream media very quickly bought into the oil lobby’s talking points by constantly raising the argument that Alberta bitumen constitutes “ethical oil,” a morally superior product in relation to oil extracted from other regions of the world. According to, the marketing arm for this oil industry PR campaign, Canada’s tarsand oil is a morally and ethically superior product because – unlike other oil producing states – “Canada protects the rights of workers, women, indigenous peoples and other minorities,” or at the very least they protect them to a greater extent than other oil-exporting states, such as Saudi Arabia. (Although the Fort Chipewyan Cree, Dene and virtually every other aboriginal person in the country might be slightly surprised by the claim that the government of Canada has been a staunch defender of their rights).

Ezra Levant, the mental genius behind the concept of “ethical oil,” has consistently called out progressive campaigners against the tarsands as hypocrites due to their embrace of fair trade and ethical purchasing policies in regards to other products but not for oil. But if we really want to call out hypocrisy, I say we throw this argument back at Harper, Levant and the rest of the ethical oil cabal. If we are to take their arguments seriously, conservatives like Harper and Levant have had some sort of Damascene conversion, as questions of worker, women and indigenous rights are now a prime consideration in how we conduct trade and energy policy. Canada currently imports more than half of the crude oil it needs. We purchase around 55 per cent of our oil from countries such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, all countries considered tainted by conflict oil according to the ethicial oilers. So why are we continuing to purchase from these suppliers and exporting our own, supposedly ethical oil to the United States? If we follow the logic of the ethical oilers, shouldn’t we be sourcing 100 percent of our energy needs from Canadian suppliers? (I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Prime Minister Harper’s National Energy Plan that would rectify this. It also might not go over so well in Washington).

What about other products? Now that the rights of workers, women and indigenous peoples are front and centre in our Prime Minister’s mind, shouldn’t we impose a ban on all imports from China due to their atrocious record on basic workers rights? What about the use of “conflict minerals” in our cell phones and laptops? Shouldn’t we immediately ban the purchase of these minerals from systematic human rights violators like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Now that the Harper Conservatives have raised the ethical standards by which we are to judge our consumption of oil, shouldn’t it apply to all the products we as Canadians consume?

The purpose here is not to belittle the very real violations of human rights perpetrated by some of Canada’s trading partners, but to call out the ethical oilers selective use of “ethics” to justify the continued exploitation of the tar sands. This is the real hypocrisy, as Harper and the ethical oilers apply selective ethical criteria to oil, but refuse to extend it to other products. We certainly could adopt an ethical trading policy that put considerations of human rights, indigenous sovereignty and environmental sustainability as the basis for our international trade. However based on those three considerations alone, I doubt Alberta tarsands would make the cut.


Simon Enoch is the Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University in Toronto.


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