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Ben Amunwa

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Canada's Dirty and Dangerous Oil Sands

Posted: 10/19/11 01:48 PM ET

EthicalOil.org has a reputation for using just about anything to promote Canada's tar sands. The local mayor, Aboriginals and environmentalists have all been thrust into EthicalOil.org's narrative, some against their will. This Monday it was my turn to get 'tarred' as the website's spokesperson Kathryn Marshall declared herself to be on "the very same page" as me. The assertion could not be further from the truth.

I work for Platform, a UK based charity that is opposed to the exploitation of tar sands in Canada. We focus our campaigning efforts on key UK companies that are heavily invested in the tar sands, including BP, Shell and the Royal Bank of Scotland. We work with global allies such as Indigenous Environmental Network and Rainforest Action Network. We also oppose the ongoing human rights abuses and environmental devastation caused by Shell and its partners in Nigeria and beyond.

In EthicalOil.org's strained interpretation, Platform's new research on Shell in Nigeria provides ammunition for Kathryn Marshall's aggressive, though ultimately unconvincing, argument for exploiting Canada's tar sands. According to her, "conflict" oil from Nigeria and the Middle East is tainted by human rights abuses, whereas Canada's "ethical" oil upholds freedom and democracy. In the words of one commentator this idea is "ludicrous." Here are some reasons why.

First of all, the tar sands are not ethical. They have been branded as "blood oil" due to their devastating impact on the rights, health and livelihoods of local First Nations communities. Even if you do agree with EthicalOil.org's binary view of the world, the oil industry doesn't. The same oil companies that extract Canada's so called 'ethical oil' also operate in repressive countries like Nigeria, Syria and Russia. Oil companies do not discriminate when it comes to the black stuff. Shell, for example, is responsible for roughly 20 per cent of the tar sands output from Alberta and has been active in Nigeria for over 50 years.

Secondly, EthicalOil.org's biggest flaw is its illogical reasoning. Repression in Nigeria or Saudi Arabia is certainly worthy of condemnation, but it is utterly irrelevant to the question of whether or not we should be extracting tar sands, risking catastrophic climate change and devastating the environment and basic human rights of local communities in Canada.

The ecological nightmare of the tar sands is entirely omitted from EthicalOil.org's narrative. They make no mention of the giant toxic lakes that in 2009 were filled with 720 million cubic liters of chemical waste from tar sands extraction. In 2008, 500 birds were found dead in one of these lakes in Aurora. Local communities living downstream from tar sands mines in Fort Chipewyan have seen elevated rates of cancer. High levels of carcinogenic toxins such as mercury and arsenic have been detected downstream in the Athabasca River.

Canada is already the site of vast environmental degradation caused by the oil industry. If planned tar sands projects go ahead, they will destroy an area of pristine boreal forest the size of Portugal and Denmark combined. The wastelands in Nigeria are but a glimpse of what Canada will look like if it continues to exploit the tar sands.

Thirdly, EthicalOil.org hijacks stories of human suffering from oil producing countries in order to advance its own agenda. The website mechanically churns through cases of brutality from the "world of conflict oil." But EthicalOil.org does not campaign in support of the victims of human rights abuses. It simply uses them for its own irrelevant purposes. It also turns a blind eye to the human rights of Canadian First Nations communities who bear the brunt of the pollution from tar sands. Several groups including the Beaver Lake Cree have ongoing legal action to prevent Shell, BP and other tar sands operators from violating their constitutionally protected treaty rights.

EthicalOil.org exists to defend the public image of Canada's oil industry, but it is fighting an increasingly losing battle. The EU is pressing ahead with plans to ban tar sands imports from Canada due to the higher carbon emissions. In the U.S., a high profile campaign of civil disobedience was launched against the Keystone XL pipeline, (which could transport Canadian tar sands into American refineries) and over 30 U.S. lawmakers have come out against the plan. As the world wakes up to the impact of the tar sands, EthicalOil.org would rather you stayed sleeping.