Is oil from the Tar Sands ethical? September 16, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
I listened to an episode of Q on CBC radio, which featured debate on the ethical acceptability of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. Ezra Levant, author of the new book Ethical Oil argued that it is, while environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk argued that it is not.
The argument was spirited, as you might expect, with Levant dominating the exchange by describing how much less “ethical” oil is that comes from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the Sudan, and so forth. Nikiforuk argued, if I understood him correctly, that we could do better, a point that Levant conceded.
I got the impression from the debate that Levant and perhaps Nikiforuk were confused about what it means to say that something is “ethical”. Specifically, it seemed to me that Levant’s conclusion simply does not follow from his argument. In other words, even if all his premises or claims about oil are true, his conclusion that Tar Sands oil is “ethical” could still be wrong.
Let me try to clarify: Levant argued that Tar Sands oil is better, ethically speaking, than oil from sources such as Nigeria or Saudi Arabia because, in Alberta, oil extraction is less polluting and gives rise to less corruption and bloodshed than it does in those other places. Yet, even if we grant the point that Tar Sands oil is better than these alternatives, it does not follow that it is the best alternative, which is what Levant seems to conclude. The best alternative, as Levant appeared to concede, might be Tar Sands oil done right with, let’s say, improved oversight, environmental controls, and benefits to Albertans and Canadians.
Perhaps an analogy would help. Suppose that you are asked to identify the most fuel-efficient car design from among a number of alternatives. Design A goes 100km on a liter of gas, design B goes 90km, C and D go 86km, and so on. Which design is the most fuel efficient? Design A, of course. Now, suppose that someone claims that design B is the most fuel-efficient because it is better than C, D, E, and so on. Even if they are right, it does not change the fact that A is better than any of the alternative designs, including B. To choose the most fuel-efficient design, you must choose A.
Likewise, if you are faced with the problem of identifying an “ethical” source of oil, you should identify all the alternatives, weigh them, and then select the one (if any) that dominates the others. Our range of options, Levant concedes, includes Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, …, the Tar Sands, and the Tar-Sands-with-improvements. It seems obvious that, according to his argument, the “ethical” option is the Tar-Sands-with-improvements and not the Tar Sands (as they are now).
Of course, the Tar-Sands-with-improvements does not exist. However, that does not make it ethically inferior to the other alternatives, any more than car design A becomes less fuel efficient then B because no one has yet produced it. Having identified the best alternative, the question we then face is: How do we get there? Unfortunately, when it comes to the Tar Sands, my impression (from a distance) is that government and industry are content with the status quo and so progress is sluggish at best. Perhaps it is here that the real problem lies for us: it is sometimes hard to do the right thing, even where we have decided what that is. So, I would suggest to Levant that, if he wants to advance the cause of ethical oil as he sees it, then he should stop berating people about how awful oil extraction is elsewhere and start berating Canadians for not doing a better job at home when the opportunity is before us.