Review: Ethical Oil, by Ezra Levant

Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands , by Ezra Levant. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2010. 261 pp. $26.95 (hardcover).

ethical-oilOil is crucial to human life, not only as a source of energy that fuels our homes, businesses, cars, airplanes, and hospitals, but also as a key component of countless products on which our lives and prosperity depend—from medical devices and cell phones, to roads and tires, to books, CDs, footballs, and tablecloths. Nonetheless, the oil industry and the men who animate it are widely loathed and frequently maligned. Read any news outlet for examples. In the face of this relentless anti-oil sentiment, Ezra Levant has written Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.

Levant explains that conventional oil fields (such as those in Iran and Saudi Arabia) have been decreasing production at a rate of 6.7 percent per year due to depleted reserves, and that, today, the largest exporter of oil to the United States is Canada (having displaced Saudi Arabia in 2004). Most of the oil produced in Canada, he notes, is extracted in Alberta in a geologically marvelous region called the Athabasca Oil Sands.

Unlike conventional liquid oil, the oil sands are a type of bitumen—“oil mixed with sand and clay . . . [that] has the thickness of peanut butter”—that is more difficult and expensive to extract (p. 8). Levant explains that higher oil prices, and hence higher oil company profits, have led to capital investment in new technologies and extraction processes that have made “the oil sands economically viable” (p. 9).

The first oil company to work the oil sands region was Suncor, in 1967. The open-pit mines that many people think of when picturing the oil sands are a relic of the early days of oil exploration and extraction. Today,

Alberta’s oil sands are easily one of the most technologically advanced resource operations in the world. Behind every dump-truck driver are teams of computer modellers, engineers, geologists, and technical operators. For every strong back working a shovel, there are a dozen M.A.s and Ph.D.s somewhere working a computer. (p. 117)

Most of the thick bitumen (80 percent) is deep in the ground and must be drilled for and pumped out using steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), whereby steam is injected to reduce the viscosity of the bitumen, which then drains, by force of gravity, into a pipe below the steam and is pumped out. Using this technology, Canadian oil sands companies are able to transform what was once “considered an experimental project” into an oil-generating powerhouse (p. 9).

In 2008, Canada shipped 715 million barrels [of oil] to the United States, far more than the 550 million barrels the Saudis sold. From 2003 to 2008, the oil sands had helped cut Saudi imports by 80 million barrels a year. (p. 9)

But as Canada has become a larger player in the global oil market, Levant explains, environmentalists and other critics of the oil sands have increasingly condemned this technology and the companies that employ it. The critics claim that the oil sands are “140,000 square kilometers of toxic sludge” and “giant toxic lakes” inhabited by deformed fish, and that “migrating birds sometimes stop to rest” at these toxic sites before dying by the “tens of millions” (p. 1). Critics further claim that because of the high volume of water required to extract oil from these sites, “the mighty Athabasca River is about to become a small, dirty creek” (p. 2). They claim that the oil sands are “poisoning the aboriginals” in the region and “poisoning our very planet” (p. 3). And they claim that Fort McMurray, the urban center of oil sands production, is afflicted with all the “social ills of a boom town—the violence, the mistreatment of women, the addiction problems, and an artificially high cost of living that makes almost anyone with a job part of the working poor” (p. 3).

Levant contends that the foregoing criticisms are “false . . . [e]very one of them” and sets out to refute them and others, and to show that the oil sands are ethically superior to the alternatives on multiple fronts (p. 3). . . .

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