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).

For instance, industrial pollution as a consequence of oil sands production is purported to be catastrophic. But Levant shows that air pollution around Fort McMurray is lower than it is around Canada’s “greenest city,” Vancouver, British Columbia, or any of Alberta’s big cities. Similarly, carbon monoxide, “a major atmospheric pollutant that can react in the air in ways that are harmful to human health . . . [is] no more concentrated in the air around the oil sands than it is in Edmonton and Calgary” (p. 111). Hydrogen sulfide in the air around the oil sands is “almost identical” to Calgary, an “extremely safe level” (p. 111). Nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas “that’s one of the major atmospheric pollutants carefully tracked by environmental regulators . . . around the oil sands is just 30 per cent of Toronto levels” (p. 111). In fact, Levant notes, much of the so-called pollution around the oil sands is actually present in its state of nature. Levant notes that in 1788, nearly two centuries before the first oil sands company was established, explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie documented the oil sands area as having “bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet long may be inserted without the least resistance” around the Athabasca River (p. 108). Likewise, in 1909, retracing some of Mackenzie’s steps, Agnes Deans Cameron described the oil-saturated land and bitter-tasting water that “anti-oil sands groups today obsess over” (p. 109).

Because concentrations of air pollutants that can inflict demonstrable harm on human beings are so low around the oil sands, Levant explains, environmentalists focus most of their attention on carbon dioxide (CO2)—a greenhouse gas (GHG) alleged to cause global warming—when attacking the oil sands. Environmentalists claim that “[n]o other method of oil production in the world comes close to the . . . sands in terms of CO2 emissions” (p. 2). Levant counters this claim by pointing out that even if CO2 in the atmosphere were causing an increase in the planet’s temperature, the total human contribution of that gas is less than 5 percent, of which “0.1 per cent of the world’s total human caused emissions” is a consequence of oil sands industry (p. 113). With the technological advancements employed by oil sands companies, every barrel of oil extracted today “[takes] between one-third and one-half less GHGs to produce than a barrel extracted in 1990—and emissions continue to fall every year” (p. 109).

As to the allegedly massive amount of water used in oil sands production, Levant explains that whereas oil producers in the United States “have signed contracts dividing up literally 100 per cent—every last drop—of the natural flow of key rivers,” oil sands producers in Canada “use about 1 per cent [of the Athabasca river], and even less in the winter, when flows are lower” (p. 123). Levant reports that Suncor “recycle[s] 90 per cent of the water it uses”; Imperial Oil “reuses 95 per cent of its water . . . [and] [c]ompanies including ConocoPhilips, Nexen, and Devon aren’t using any fresh water for their SAGD operations, but instead use non-potable water with recycling rates at 90 per cent” (p. 123).

Just as Levant refutes general misconceptions and distortions regarding the so-called environmental impact of the oil sands, he plays an investigative role exposing the dishonesty of individuals and organizations that crusade against the oil sands producers. One such individual is Dr. John O’Connor, who practiced in the small town of Fort Chipewyan, downstream from oil sands facilities. After diagnosing six cases of an extremely rare form of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma (cancer of the bile duct) among the aboriginal population of Fort Chipewyan, Dr. O’Connor sounded the alarm “across the province to everyone who would listen . . . he became a hero to the countless anti-oil sands websites that ran with their story of the Aboriginals . . . being killed by callous, capitalist oil sands barons” (p. 166). But, explains Levant, a comprehensive, peer-reviewed report from the Alberta Cancer Board discredited Dr. O’Connor’s claims. Cholangiocarcinoma occurs naturally at rates “three times as often” among Aboriginals as compared to non-Aboriginals, just as sickle-cell anemia occurs at higher rates among blacks as compared to Caucasians (p. 167). Further, explains Levant, Alberta’s college of physicians and surgeons determined that Dr. O’Connor fabricated cases to create a panic, and “of the twelve cases [of cancer] he claimed he had diagnosed, only three were confirmed” (p. 172).

The media played a role in advancing Dr. O’Connor’s scaremongering, and similarly promulgated an international news story about a “two-jawed,” “mutant fish” that washed ashore from the Athabasca River (p. 173). The refrain was that “[w]hat happens to the wildlife and the fish is eventually what is going to happen to us” (p. 173). But, again, explains Levant, such claims are unfounded. According to a University of Alberta ichthyologist, the fish’s protuberant “second jaw” was a result of the normal process of the fish’s bony tongue pushing through its decomposing lower mandible (p. 173).

Through Levant’s exposure of such bogus claims and scaremongering tactics, readers come to see that those who oppose the oil sands revolution are dishonest or ignorant or both.

A case in point is Kevin Timoney, an Edmonton, Alberta, “scientist” and “ecological philosopher,” who states, “[h]umans have spread across the entire planet, some would say like a metastasized cancer, destroying not only organisms, but the Earth’s ability to create and support life” (p. 175). An amusing example of Timoney’s “scientific method” entails eating fish caught in the Athabasca River and “using his palate to determine whether there was something wrong with them” (p. 177). In another instance, a founding member of Greenpeace, which of course staunchly opposes oil sands production, stated that the organization was “abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas” (p. 145). When asked about this by the BBC, Greenpeace’s outgoing director Gerd Leipold stated that if they did not exaggerate and emotionalize issues, no one would pay attention to them.

To illustrate how Greenpeace tries to advance its industry-destroying agenda while ignoring the plight of those stricken by actual environmental disaster, Levant points to Greenpeace’s reaction to the Chinese government in 2005 after the state-operated PetroChina chemical factory explosion in Jilin City. This catastrophe resulted in six deaths, scores of injuries, and poisons pouring into the drinking water of 3.8 million residents. China’s response included denying the problem, covering it up, assassinating a scapegoat, and imposing a $125,000 fine on PetroChina. Levant points out that Greenpeace would relish the opportunity to condemn a Western company that took similar action, as exemplified by its continued denunciation of Exxon for the Valdez oil spill, which resulted in no human injuries, let alone deaths. In response to the Jilin City explosion, Greenpeace issued this harsh statement: “We urge the Chinese government to make even greater efforts in protecting the local people and the environment” (p. 66).

Because of the environmentalists’ claims that the oil sands industry has harmed the “environment” and the aboriginal population, many consumers of oil now consider Canada to be an ethically unsound oil supplier; as “immoral, even criminal” (p. 6). But, Levant shows, with respect to the basic ethical-political issue of rights, Canada is vastly superior to the subsequent top six countries that supply America with oil. Unlike countries such as Saudi Arabia, Canada’s oil reserves are not controlled by a government monopoly, and “[e]very drop of oil from Alberta is one less drop from some fascist theocracy, or some brutal warlord; one less cent into the treasuries of Russia’s secret police and al-Qaeda’s murderers” (p. 234). Levant notes some of the many rights violations that anti-oil sands activists ignore in their haste to undermine Canadian oil. In Saudi Arabia, “women are treated as property of men, with fewer rights than children and only slightly more rights than animals” (p. 15), and “rape victims are routinely prosecuted and punished by the government” (p. 16). In Iran, an “oil-rich nation with jails full of innocents,” adultery is a crime “punishable by stoning” (pp.18–19). In Russia, “twenty one journalists [critical of Putin’s regime] have been murdered . . . according to the press freedom organization Reporters without Borders” (p. 22). In Nigeria, the government has sponsored massacres, in particular “118 cases of arbitrary killings” in a postelection riot in 2008 (p. 23). In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has outlawed complaining about his government and doles out “punishments for media crimes” (p. 26)—and there are “hundreds of cases where political activists who dare to speak out against the government have been arrested and, often, killed” (p. 27). In Sudan, as a result of its president’s actions, “2.2 million Sudanese were facing starvation and disease” in 2009 while the Sharia state whips women and girls for “crimes such as . . . wearing pants” (p. 30). In contrast to these countries, writes Levant, “Canada is one of the most hospitable places in the world to live, offering democracy, a stalwart commitment to the rule of law, and economic freedom” (p. 32). Levant notes that reports from human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International) have scant criticism toward Canada. In fact, the main criticism leveled at Canada is that it does not “take a more active role in stopping other countries [such as Saudi Arabia] from abusing human rights” (p. 32).

Levant repeatedly indicates that when a rights-respecting country (such as Canada) is compared to a rights-violating country (such as China), a different ethical “yardstick” is used (p. 33). Sometimes poor methodology—as with the corporate ethical ranking industry using “Google alerts that are dispatched among analysts for selection and codification”—results in the perverse ethical ranking of the oil sands (p. 55). Far more sinister, in Levant’s view, is the threat toward the oil sands emanating from Saudi Arabia, a country that stands to “[benefit] the most when customers boycott and investors steer clear of the oil sands” (p. 189).

Observing that two seemingly disparate ideological forces (Islamists in Saudi Arabia and environmentalists in the West) are united in their effort to undermine the oil sands, Levant writes that “the guys who hug trees have joined forces with the guys who stone gays” (p. 190). Environmentalists are making the oil sands uneconomical through regulations and taxes, as the Saudi lobby in Washington influences U.S. energy policy under the guise of “environmental” measures. Levant notes that in 2006 anti-oil crusader Al Gore was a keynote speaker at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Economic Forum.

According to Levant, America’s economic dependence on the flow of oil from unstable regions of the Middle East is fraught with problems. In particular, Americans are sacrificing their wealth with the “$50 billion Washington spends every year keeping the shipping lanes of the Middle East open” (p. 202). According to the Center for Forensic Economic studies, American citizens spend $1.55 for every dollar spent on foreign crude, due to the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Middle East. Levant argues that Americans are senselessly dying to secure the flow of oil internationally, when it would be in America’s self-interest to exploit the Canadian oil sands at the cost of zero American deaths. Moreover, he says, U.S. citizens are “handing subsidies to the Saudis so they can sell oil to the Chinese” (p. 202).

Levant consistently supports his arguments for America’s use of the oil sands and importation of Canadian oil from the perspective of American and Canadian self-interest. Although he is to some extent confused about what “self-interest” means (at one point he accuses the oil sands’ enemies of “oppos[ing] an industry . . . [for their] own selfish interests” [p. 233]), Levant provides a barrage of evidence in moral defense of the oil sands producers and in moral condemnation of their enemies. His theme is the moral supremacy of political and economic freedom along with the resulting technologies, as embodied by Canada and its oil sands producers.

Levant’s writing is clear, example-laden, persuasive, and entertaining. Given the prevalent hostility to the oil sands industry, Ethical Oil is an important book that does justice to a life-serving industry we take for granted every day.

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