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Ethical Oil? Climate Change Is Unethical and Prejudice Is Too

In an environment of obscured facts, prejudice, and generalization, the "Ethical Oil" campaign can work because it speaks to values like democracy, good jobs, pride, the rights of women and other things we hold dear.

Earlier this month, a series of ads were released by Alykhan Velshi as a part of Ezra Levant's "Ethical Oil" campaign which aims to defend the tar sands' image. They juxtaposed terrorism in the Middle East ("conflict" oil) with democratic Canada ("ethical" oil), Indigenous people killed in Sudan's oil fields with Aboriginal people employed in Alberta's fields, and forced labour in Venezuela with "good jobs" in Canada's oil sands, all with the tag line, "Ethical oil: a choice we have to make." However, this is the wrong dichotomy to be making, where both choices presented commit us to climatic changes that are already killing thousands of people and displacing millions more, instead of talking about real solutions to climate change.

There is in fact a third option. A third option where we spend money on jobs in teaching and health care, instead of the $8 billion on subsidies Canadian Governments are giving to oil and gas corporations now. A third option where we build communities that are based on public transit, walking, biking, and getting to know our neighbours, instead of building sprawling suburbs that require people to drive and cities to spend millions on new infrastructure. A third option where Indigenous peoples can chose to live traditional, sustainable lifestyles free of toxins and human-induced climatic changes, instead of their rivers and ecosystems being poisoned by extractive projects. A third option where people can be employed in good green jobs working on community-based wind and solar projects right at home, instead of having to leave their job to be employed in the oil sands.

What sounds better to you? For most of us, the choice is clear. Rather than continuing on a path of climate injustice is being sold to us as "better" rather than "worst," let's choose what is necessary to stop ecological destruction and transition towards a green and just economy. Far from being a utopian ideal, it is the only reasonable option.

That said, Velshi and Levant's campaign is gaining traction with some because it fails to mention this, much more appealing third option. Not only that, it speaks to people because it tries to appeal to core values like democracy, good, jobs, and pride -- all important values that resonate with people in Canada and around the word, while simultaneously relying on generalisations, misinformation, and prejudice still existent in our society.

The claim that Middle Eastern oil "funds terrorism" and tar sands oil "funds peacekeeping," is simply untrue. At present the Canadian military has only 210 peacekeepers actively deployed in peacekeeping missions across the globe. Meanwhile we have spent over $22 billion fuelling a war in Afghanistan, which has been brought into question by Afghani women's and democracy groups, and which causes huge amounts of social destruction (almost 20,000 people, civilians and soldiers, have been killed in Afghanistan due to the war) and environmental destruction (sources say every U.S. forward dperating base requires 300 gallons of diesel daily) in its own right.

When it comes to terrorism, the Ethical Oil campaign requires a culture steeped in Islamophobia. We are told every day that terrorist equals Muslim and Muslim equals terrorist, one need only look at the media coverage of the shootings in Norway for proof. Before the Norwegian authorities were able to identify the shooter, journalists speculated that it was linked to "home-grown terror plots linked to Al Qaeda." Once the real culprit was found, he was not immediately called a "Christian terrorist," similar to the term "Muslim terrorist" that is used so often. No, instead he was framed as an individual, rather than someone representative of his whole religion and region, as is the norm when referring to "Muslim terrorists." Instead the media attempted to conflate his actions with "Al Qaeda's brutality and multiple attacks," better fitting their narrative of terrorism, the same narrative that the Ethical Oil campaign piggybacks.

One of the ads claims that Indigenous people are killed in Middle Eastern oil fields while Canadian "ethical" oil sands employ Aboriginal people. However, despite the ads' claims, only 10 per cent of oil sands workers are Aboriginal. More importantly, the way they frame this ad makes it seem as if the killing of Indigenous people and frontline communities is inherent to, in this case, Sudan, and the Middle East more largely, instead of inherent to the relentless pursuit to extract fossil fuels. The reality is that anywhere that fossil fuels are extracted, people living on the frontlines are negatively effected, no matter where the extraction is happening. Take mountaintop removal mining in the United States as an example, which has led to numerous adverse health impacts including cancer, birth defects, respiratory disease and even death, such as in the case of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion which killed 29 miners working in the mine -- all this in a so-called "ethical" nation!

Meanwhile, downstream First Nations communities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories explain that traditional lands are being destroyed for tar sands exploration and extraction, and First Nations are not being included, or properly compensated for their lost and destroyed lands and water supplies. George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation has said, "If we don't have land and we don't have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyles, we lose who we are as a people. So, if there's no land, then its equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a people."

The Ethical Oil argument also ignores that in cases of atrocities associated with oil and gas extraction in those regions they deem "unethical" the oil is being extracted by the same corporations involved in Alberta's tar sands. In fact the tar sands are being extracted by corporations who have been tried and found guilty of violating, sometimes violently, human rights around the globe. Take Shell for example. They were recently forced through a court case to own up to their responsibility for an oil spill in Nigeria, where their activities had deadly consequences for the Ogoni people. Shell has been accused of being financially linked to the local military and security forces responsible for violent crackdowns on communities voicing concerns over the health impacts of Shell's operations, including the killing of dozens of opponents. Following Velshi and Levant's logic,

Shell should be considered an "unethical" source of oil. Shell, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell with many Canadian shareholders, is also heavily invested in tar sands extraction in Alberta and has major holdings in Saudi Arabia, one of the worst of the worst on the "ethical" oil list. The idea of "ethical" oil requires one to ignore that oil extraction's primary beneficiary is the corporations responsible for it, and Shell is just one example of many of corporations with fingers in the tar sands, while backing "unethical" oil abroad. Other examples include Chevron, whose Ecuadorian operations have been linked to massive human rights abuse and BP, responsible for the Deepwater Horizon spill which some say has devastated the health and livelihoods of Gulf Coast Communities.

The tar sands are not ethical. Climate change is not ethical. And the xenophobia perpetuated in the Ethical Oil ad campaign is also far from ethical. However, in an environment of obscured facts, prejudice, and generalization, this type of campaign can work because it speaks to values like democracy, good jobs, pride, the rights of women and other things we hold dear.

What we need remember is that these values were won by communities fighting for them, in the same way that communities are fighting against the tar sands, for health, dignity and better future. The work of activists and communities calling for the respect of people and the planet is beginning to have a real impact, and that's why this ad campaign was created, and it's why they are playing dirty. Around the globe, people are rejecting dirty energy like the tar sands and creating a third option. This option creates green jobs, builds healthy communities, and transitions us off of fossil fuels. To be effective in doing this we need to change the discourse to ensure that this type of xenophobic campaign, that uses prejudice and other low blows, is not salient. Because in fact, it is climate activists and everyday people who are fighting for a true democracy, good jobs, and justice for Indigenous peoples -- and prejudice is not a part of the future that we are fighting for.

By Cameron Fenton and Natasha Peters.

Natasha Peters is an Ottawa based organizer who said, "As a queer woman, I was particularly insulted and enraged by the ad claiming that supporting supposed 'ethical oil' means supporting the pride of LGBTQ people." She can be reached at

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