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Alykhan Velshi

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There Is Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'

Posted: 09/01/11 07:19 PM ET

Outside the White House today, two women wore Saudi-style burqas and held signs attacking Canada and its oil sands. They marched, they chanted, they handed out leaflets, and they posed for photographs. You can view photos of their protest here. They even released a statement to the media, which read:

"For more than 40 years, we Americans have powered our businesses, fueled our cars, and made our lives more comfortable with the help of OPEC oil. We think that special relationship is worth protecting. Every barrel of oil we buy from Canada undermines our support for our traditional OPEC allies by displacing OPEC imports. We appreciate, and are grateful for the fact that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Venezuela and the United Arab Emirates have kept America supplied with oil, reasonably consistently, for decades. We have come to depend on our OPEC friends and they have come to depend on us. That's no way to treat a friend. Americans4OPEC was founded to let our political leaders know that we cherish that special relationship. We don't need new sources of oil as long as we can continue being supplied by existing sources. That's why Americans4OPEC is speaking out for America's best interests -- telling President Obama that we don't want Canada's oil. Join us, Americans4OPEC, in standing up against Canada's oil and standing up for our valuable, longtime OPEC allies."

If their website, Americans4OPEC.com, strikes you as a bit absurd, it's because it is. Americans4OPEC.com is a satire, and the protest was a bit of street theatre. (Perhaps the real acting of these women in burqas has provided some inspiration to the many D-listers now achieving media celebrity not through their acting talents but through political activism against Canada and its oil sands.)

The protest's message is simple: As long as we need oil -- and we will for at least the next few decades -- people, businesses, and governments have a choice to make: Ethical Oil from Canada, its oil sands, and other liberal democracies, or Conflict Oil from politically oppressive, environmentally reckless regimes.

Most people don't think about oil as something that can be ethical. They should. Many of us drink fair trade coffee because we like that it's produced ethically; we don't want to wear clothes made using child labour; and we try to eat poultry that is raised humanely. Surely the same logic applies to oil.

Conflict oil is produced by countries that persecute women and minorities, like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Conflict oil is produced on the backs of exploited workers, where labour unions are outlawed and indentured servitude is the norm. Conflict oil comes from places without freedom of the press. Conflict oil is used to fund terrorism and wars. And when you're as indifferent to the value of human life as the producers of the world's conflict oil are, you don't put much value on wildlife, either: that's why conflict oil is the most environmentally destructive oil on the planet, spilling billions of barrels of oil into our waters with impunity and belching the dirtiest pollutants into our atmosphere.

By contrast, ethical oil from Canada's oil sands and other liberal democracies is produced by workers who are not only free to unionize, but are paid good wages and work in safe conditions. Ethical oil comes from places where women and minorities are not just given equal rights but are actively recruited by firms eager to increase the diversity of their workforce. Ethical oil comes from producers who work every day to minimize their environmental impact. Ethical oil comes from the most robust democracies, where journalists -- or any citizen -- can freely and vocally criticize even the most powerful people in the land without being tortured or worse. Ethical oil comes from countries -- like Canada -- that promote peace.

Before the end of the year, President Obama will approve or reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Here is hoping President Obama says yes to Keystone XL, the better to wean Americans off their dependence on conflict oil by promoting an ethical oil alternative: Canada's oil sands.