Ethical Oil: Part One, The Debate

It’s not easy being green.

Yet, somehow, I think Alykhan Velshi gets along okay.

The self-styled social justice activist has made it his altruistic goal to ensure that every man, woman and child in the world is burning only the most sin-free petroleum.

Velshi has grabbed the banner of Ethical Oil, taking inspiration from the book of the same title written by tarsands troubadour Ezra Levant.

The 27 year-old former aide to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is out to convince the country – and bien sur, the world – that the Albertan tarsands are the environmentally friendly and more socially responsible choice. If the oil revenue stays in the country, Velshi says, then it goes to support a healthy country based on women’s freedoms, gay rights, democracy, etc. But buying that oil from, say, Saudi Arabia is like subsidizing the burqa.

The Toronto-based activist is hoping to sway Canadian consciousness away from tailing ponds and oil-soaked geese to images of freedom and equality; First Nation peoples with steady employment, gays and lesbians walking hand-in-hand without fear of reprisal, environmentalists holding beakers, and so on.

His idea is a genius one. The tarsands have been losing the PR campaign for quite some time now. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has been pumping out TV ads for some time lauding the environmental responsibility of the tarsands. Yet they’re losing the communications battle against a 10 year-old Aboriginal girl on Youtube singing about how she wants to save dolphins. You just can’t beat that.

My first response to the campaign was one of disgust. Then came bemusement. Then confusion. Somewhere along the line, I poured myself a glass of wine and started looking at pictures of cats.

As a queer, fair-trade-coffee-drinking, environmentally-conscious kind of person who counts taunting Ezra Levant on Twitter as a hobby – this pill was a tough one to swallow.

I don’t profess to be a moral authority. Judging whether Alberta’s oil fields are a cataclysmic environmental disaster or whether they’re wide fields full of ponies is not a decision I care to make. I am not writing this from an environmental or ethical perspective.

So I sat, a detached observer, watching the reactionism and hyperbole on both sides; Alberta is bad! No it isn’t! It’s killing pigeons! Saudis stone women!

It’s like a tennis match between two people who insist on lobbing the ball out of the court on every swing.

Velshi and his merry men have artificially created the concept that we can choose Albertan oil. We can’t. The extent of our choice at present is whether Canada wants to export a lot of oil, or a lot more of it.

Once Velshi establishes the concept that buying oil is like shopping for cereal, he pits the best the tarsands has to offer against the worst the supposed alternative has. Misleading and disingenuous, yes, but it’s great marketing.

Visions not included in this campaign are ones of Norwegian citizens enjoying public transit or young Britons chomping down on crumpets while enjoying tea with the Queen mum, all financed by our dollars.

What the campaign does show is an image of the Iranian flag with superimposed images of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The word “dictatorship” appears in capital letters. Juxtaposed is a picture of the Canadian flag and the word “democracy.”

Funny, of course, since we import no oil from Iran. We haven’t for years.

Velshi’s defense is essentially that the campaign is not Canadian-exclusive. Others import Iranian oil, he says, so that’s why Iran comes into his campaign.

The entire campaign is built on these false choices.

The environmentalists have almost lent their tacit support to Velshi’s campaign by recognizing that it has to be a choice. The left-wing camp are caught between full-throated opposition to the tarsands and awkward support for the jobs they bring. They trumpet an elusive “sustainable” path forward. What that entails is still a mystery.

That’s the problem – the left has failed to educate the country on the real debate. They’ve told us the environmental impact, but haven’t offered a real alternative or solution.

So environmentalists wage war on symbolic outgrowths of the tarsands. They cart in celebrities like Daryl Hannah to be arrested outside the White House to protest a proposed trans-American pipeline.

They’ve squandered that opportunity to educate. Rest assured that if this pipeline wasn’t build, there’d be another. And another.

To paraphrase comedian Ron White; it’s not that the pipe is flowin’, it’s why the pipe is flowin’.

Indeed, Ezra Levant has even given this environmentalist a name. It’s Zoe. She is a “twenty-something university student taking vegetarian studies,” and a prototypical environmentalist – not a professional activist – who believes that the tarsands “violate her values,” says Levant.

“What does Zoe value? Environmentalism; peace; treatment of workers; and human rights. Those are four genuine progressive values,” Levant told me via email. “So I set about making the case for Canadian oil using progressive values, rather than conservative values. Same destination, different path. I am a right wing guy who wrote a left wing book.”

See the problem here? Levant has co-opted the left-wing dialog and forced them to debate themselves in nebulous terms.

The left-wing has got to cede the moral high ground on this one.

On the other side, if the right wing were sincerely concerned about creating jobs and pushing economic growth, they would be more concerned about the industry here in Canada rather than contorting themselves to support the reanimated corpse of Reganomics.

When talking about the wildly complicated field of energy trade, perhaps it warrants a real conversation with, like – I dunno – numbers and stuff?

Why are we letting these two camps run the dialog? Why are we incapable of having an adult conversation about energy politics? I’m tired of rhetoric being shoved down my throat. I think it’s about time we climbed aboard the Information Express and got a one-way ticket to knowledge. Take the ideology out of the practice.

In part two, I’ll put my calculator to work and examine what Canada’s energy economy actually looks like.


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