The end(s) of ethical oil: connecting dots on radicalism and re-regulation in Canada

A couple of years ago, a triumphant Ezra Levant pilloried opposition to Alberta’s Oil Sands on a simple premise: we all need oil, so it is best to buy from producers that respect human rights. Today, the “ethical oil” profiteers argue that Canada is not compromised by selling oil, or control over it, to countries (China in particular) with abysmal track records on everything that supposedly made buying our own oil so great: human rights, fair wages, democracy… the list goes on. I think I get the logic: yesterday’s moralizing is today’s norm.

Now, having created the narrative, it is necessary to police its boundaries. Such as through spying on environmental activists deemed a threat to national security.

But I’d like to revisit the ‘ethical oil’ narrative, the poverty of its logic and to connect it to re-regulation in Canada.

Ethical oil: as bad as you remember

Perhaps it has been awhile since Ezra Levant’s book, Ethical Oil, fell off your nightstand. If so, here is a quick re-cap. Levant pitches his arguments in a thought experiment designed to convince 20-somethings studying vegetarianism at McGill University that, since we all need oil, its better to develop the Alberta’s bitumen deposits than it is to buy oil from countries with paltry records on human rights or working conditions. The conclusion? There is not only an economic reason for developing the Canadian Oil Sands, there are moral reasons as well.

In addition to the poor reasoning of Levant’s book that I’ve noted previously, almost any student of vegetarianism will likely read Peter Singer. And these students would only get a few pages into one of his central works, Practical Ethics, before they would read a statement like this: one of the central tenets of ethical reasoning is that you cannot start out with premises that intrinsically favor certain groups over others.

Most of us recognize this logic straightaway; its unethical to begin with ideas of male superiority in decisions about gender equity. But either Levant doesn’t see this, or he reasons poorly. Either way, Ethical Oil is, in its sloppy normative rhetoric, simply a statement that if you like Canada better then buy oil from it. But I think we can do better than Ezra.

 Fast-forward to re-regulation

Move ahead a few years in Canadian politics, and the ‘ethical oil’ campaign has now entrenched its narrative. In fact, it is increasingly the case that the entire country has its economic future (at the very least its fortunes) pinned on the price of Alberta bitumen, at least according to the federal finance minister.

Once seen in this context, the dramatic re-regulation of Canadian environmental laws in 2012 becomes more clear as a not-so-subtle outworking of a moral argument. And it helps to explain why an industry letter on environmental regulations [PDF] predicts so many of the actual legislative changes.

Today, Reuter’s is reporting that Canada is close to releasing its emissions plans for the Oil Sands. It will be very interesting to see what those plans entail. Canada has had 4 environment ministers in the last 7 years. All of them have said similar things, and so I’m not holding my breath.

One thing that is worth noting is that the moral ends of ethical oil are now in the maintenance of the policy norms it sought to install. And so there is a dramatic narrowing of the vision of public policy: one that conflates ill-conceived moral ends with those of political economy.