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Memo to Jody Williams: Ethical Oil HELPS Women's Rights

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Jody Williams did the world's citizens a great favour when she championed, and ultimately succeeded in bringing about, the Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel landmines in the late '90s. Williams also led a human rights mission to the killing fields of Darfur. She is cognizant, as much as anyone, of the terrible costs of war, genocide and terror.

And yet, perhaps unwittingly, Williams is actively defending one of the greatest contributors to bloodshed and misery ever created: conflict oil. Look at the most belligerent countries in the world, and the worst countries when it comes to protecting human rights, and you will find on those lists some of the world's largest oil producers: Iran, Sudan, Moammar Gaddafi's Libya, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Nigeria, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Saudi Arabia have all used their oil revenues to fuel terribly repressive regimes, terrorism and brutal wars.

One of the biggest priorities for the despots and murderers that run those countries is to keep the world buying their oil. And the last thing they want is major Western markets in the U.S. and Europe having ready alternatives to their supply. For one thing, the more oil that producers can recover from reserves in ethical countries like Canada and the U.S., the cheaper the price of oil gets. That means less money for the secret police, weapons programs and terrorist groups these regimes sponsor.

For another, the less reliant Europeans and Americans become on conflict oil, the less leverage the petro-tyrannies have to manipulate Western policy. The threat of another OPEC oil embargo aimed at weakening Washington's support for its democratic allies becomes much less potent once Americans start getting more and more of their imports from Canada. Europe's unbecoming habit of turning a blind eye to the imperialism and human rights crimes committed by Russia, Iran and other major oil producers is a product of its dependence on oil from those regimes.

That's why it's so disappointing to see someone like Williams, after so many years of standing up for human rights and against bloodshed, to be targeting her scorn at, of all places, Canada. Williams has announced that she will be joining the fight against developing Canada's vast oil deposits as an alternative to the conflict oil the world has come to rely on. Fossil fuels, she claims, are "a major environmental and health hazard" and so they must all be eliminated. The oil sands, she believes, is "the single largest source of emissions in Canada, and is contributing rather dramatically to catastrophic climate change." And so she'll be protesting at the White House this weekend to demand that President Obama refuse to allow the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which would allow Americans access to nearly one million barrels a day of Canada's ethical oil, instead of having to increase their reliance on conflict oil producers.

Because, let's be clear: there is no other choice right now but that one -- more conflict oil or more ethical oil. Oil that emits carbon dioxide and fuels war, oppression, terror and genocide, or oil that emits carbon dioxide and promotes peace, democracy, security and human rights. Whether we like it or not, the world continues to rely on fossil fuels, and will for some time yet. The International Energy Agency estimates that solar and wind power still make up less than 1 per cent of the world's energy mix. Pretending that we can rapidly switch the other 99% of the global economy to an uneconomical alternative energy overnight is not the sign of serious thinking about energy policy. It's fantasy.

Williams statistics are misplaced, to begin with: Canada's oil sands, responsible for about 6.5 per cent of the country's human CO2 emissions, are far less carbon intensive than many other industries. Canadian agriculture alone emits more than that, and annual CO2 emissions from U.S. coal plants are more than 40 times higher. Anyone anxious about climate change has much bigger problems than the oil sands to worry about.

But what's even more troubling is that Williams would place concerns over the potential for a slight increase in carbon emissions -- James Coan of Rice University's Baker Institute Energy Forum has calculated that adding more oil sands oil to the U.S. mix will increase America's carbon emissions by at most two to three per cent -- and the marginal effect that might someday have on the atmosphere relative to much bigger emitters, over the concerns of people suffering from actual wars and repression today.

Williams is one of the founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative, aimed at supporting "women's rights around the world." It's a worthy endeavour: Women in many countries still suffer under cruel misogynist systems. As it happens, some of the worst offenders, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are, again, those countries that rely heavily on their conflict oil exports to fund their brutality. There's no way around it: as long as there remains robust worldwide demand for oil, blocking Canadian oil exports to Western markets amounts to actively protecting those markets for the worst oppressors. Whether she realizes it or not, that's what Williams is doing

There is no country on earth that has higher standards of rights for women, homosexuals, children, minorities and workers than Canada has. Americans can buy their oil from Canada, or they can increase their reliance on oil from oppressive tyrants. But they will have to buy oil somewhere. If Williams truly wants to support human rights for women, for children, for everyone, wherever they live, ostracizing Canada while making the world safe for abusive regimes is just about the worst possible way to go about it.

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