10/17/2011 12:04 EDT | Updated 12/16/2011 05:12 EST

Save the World, Support Ethical Oil

AP File

You might not expect a web feature called "Green Economy" to be mounting a case in support of Canada's oil sands, let alone one written by a campaigner from an "oil industry watchdog" group. But read this article closely -- "The price of oil: Shell in the Niger Delta" -- and you'll see exactly why sensible, realistic environmentalists often find themselves on the very same page as

Ben Amunwa, of the group Platform, tells the terrible tale of the devastation in Nigeria caused by oil spills there. When spills happened, contaminating local environments, instead of cleaning it up properly, Shell only "scooped and dumped the oil in the bushes on the other side of the road," Amunwa alleges. "As the UN confirmed recently, Shell's oil spills have created a disaster that could take 30 years to clean up, and it is common for Shell to cover up heavily polluted sites rather than remediate them." In addition to the environmental damage, Amunwa alleges that Shell "relied on government forces who systematically abused human rights, they also paid lucrative contracts to groups linked to armed militia." That arguably sustained three years of conflict that killed an estimated 60 people.

Here is where Amunwa, perhaps unwittingly, makes the case for Canada's ethical oil.

"Some might say, 'Well, that's awful. But how else do you expect an oil company to operate in a conflict zone like Nigeria?'" he writes. The answer: "We expect a company to 'do no harm' and to respect human rights, wherever it operates. Is it more acceptable for Shell to be involved in human rights abuses in Nigeria than, say, in Canada? In a world where human rights are universal, the answer must be no."

Sounds great. But the trouble, he says, is that despite UN frameworks assigning multinational corporations a duty to operate ethically in "challenging environments," there is no "legally binding mechanism" that enforces that duty.

Not internationally, there isn't. Which is why the same company that behaves unethically in Nigeria can be a responsible corporate citizen in Canada. But it's only a responsible corporate citizen in Canada, because Canada imposes legally binding mechanisms that require it. Corporations are creatures of the environments they operate in. What makes Canadian oil so ethical isn't because all the oil producers here are naturally and intrinsically inclined to be mindful of the need to uphold the highest standards of worker rights and environmental stewardship. It's because Canada expects that of them and, in many cases, demands it of them through publicly backed regulation. Their license to operate, whether technical or social, is contingent on their living up to the standards that Canadians dictate.

The corrupt and violent government in Nigeria permits oil producers to damage their environment without concern or consequence. Its armed militias lease themselves out as human-rights-abusers for hire. It scoffs at UN frameworks and so the companies that operate there scoff at them, too. Even in the unexpected case where a company might strive internally for higher standards, it would be disadvantaged in a country like Nigeria for doing so. A refusal to play ball with corrupt bureaucrats and strongmen could well lose an oil producer its license to operate; a company insisting on stringent, and expensive, environmental standards, would surely find itself outbid for contracts by international firms unconcerned about investing in such things.

In Canada, all oil producers -- whether they come from Europe or China or the Middle East -- must conform to our ethical standards or they can forget any hope of enjoying access to our publicly owned resource. Any company that scoffs at our laws -- or even breaks them inadvertently, as happened when Syncrude failed to adequately protect several hundred ducks from accidentally dying in its tailings ponds -- will find itself answering to our legal system.

In a world where there are no legally-binding mechanisms to ensure that every company operating in every country lives up to our western value system, the only mechanism for those of us wanting to see change is consumer activism: demanding that our markets are supplied by oil producers that behave ethically. Pressure from Western consumers is what has helped reform globalized manufacturing away from sweatshops and child labour. It helped create the Fair Trade Coffee phenomenon. And the ethical oil movement will bring pressure on operators and countries trafficking in conflict oil to eventually clean up their act, too.