Promoters of the Alberta tar sands suggest customers for the product almost have a moral obligation to buy it. Their term is “ethical oil.” We hear the refrain from an assortment of politicians, journalists and business executives, chief among them Alberta premier Jason Kenney.
The oil of many of our competitors, they insist, is tainted. Tainted by their anti-democratic regimes, human rights records and war-mongering. With major oil producer Russia invading Ukraine the rhetoric has heated up.
There is certainly truth in this when you consider the appalling regimes running various major oil producing countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And there is a strong argument for favouring ethical partners in our international trade relationships.
But can there be a moral imperative at all to trading in fossil fuels at a time when the greatest threat to our species is global warming? Aren’t fossil fuels in themselves now unethical? We need to depend on them for some time into the future, but one hopes this is out of necessity, not choice, rather like quitting an addiction to drugs by withdrawing rather than going cold turkey. We are, most assuredly, as addicted to oil and gas as a heroin addict is to the poppy.
The oil promoters are principally interested in selling the ethical oil story to the United States, our major customer. And the competitor of most concern is Saudi Arabia, the Americans’ major provider of crude oil after Canada and Mexico.
Saudi certainly fits the bill for unethical. However, the room for improving our export position isn’t all that great since we already provide 62 percent of American imports of crude while the Saudis provide only six percent. (2021 figures—Russia has, of course, felt the lash of ethical oil and its imports into the U.S. banned.)
The odds of the U.S. cutting back on Saudi oil are slim to none. The reason is simple: the Saudis are the world’s biggest buyers of weapons and the Americans are the world’s biggest sellers. In 2017 the two signed an arms agreement worth $350-billion over 10 years. As important as oil is, defence is a much more important industry to the U.S.
The Americans are not about to tell the Saudis they intend to replace their oil with Canada’s. If they did, the Saudis would respond by saying they are going to replace the arms they buy from the U.S. with arms from, say, Russia, or China. They have hinted as much in the past. If you don’t want my unethical oil, I don’t want your unethical guns.
So let’s stop presenting ourselves as the merchants of virtue when we are in fact the merchants of the very un-virtuous global warming. Let’s be truly ethical and concentrate on kicking the fossil fuel habit just as quickly as we possibly can. To quote Pembina Institute director Chris Severson-Baker, “Alberta should be trying to create an environment that encourages investments in green energy and decarbonization so that companies can attract the financial capital they need to reduce emissions and therefore stay in the business of producing energy.” Indeed.