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Ethical oil

Posted By drj On December 4, 2010 @ 3:06 pm In Profit | Comments Disabled

I had the pleasure to hear Ezra Levant speak yesterday morning at a breakfast sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He was promoting his new book [1], Ethical Oil, a defence of Canada’s oil sands. I’ve known Ezra for (can it be?) 20 years and he is today as skilled a polemicist as he ever was.

He related how his engagement with the oil sands happened essentially by accident. He was at a writers conference in Ottawa and there was, of course, a session dedicated to slamming Alberta’s “dirty oil”. As the Albertan-on-the-spot he was thrust into a panel discussion to defend his home province.

It was there, speaking to a hostile, yet fundamentally sincere audience, that he realized the oil sands could best be defended using the Left’s own criteria. Compared to where most of the world’s oil is coming from – secular and religious dictatorships, war-torn regions – Canada’s oil sands are ethically pristine. He cited the superiority of the Alberta’s industry, including the oil sands, in the realms of  peace, economic justice, human rights, environmental responsibility, with his usual passion. Read Peter Foster’s comments on Ezra’s argument here [2].

Ironically, anyone with first hand experience of Canada’s oil and gas industry knows the level of, particularly environmental, responsibility under which the industry operates. Whether it’s low-impact seismic using hand-cut lines, pad drilling or site remediation, all support Levant’s thesis of “continuous improvement” in our operations.

As conspicuous as Ezra’s spirited defence of Canada’s industry is the deafening silence from industry itself. Yes, there has been some soft-sell PR by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, but this is lost in a sea of shrill opposition [3].

Years ago there was still a lingering cachet surrounding the adventurous wildcatter, or daring blow-out fighters like Red Adair [4]. But the last 30-plus years has seen the industry increasingly tarred as a despoiler of the planet.

It’s hard to understate industry’s failure to defend its reputation. If it’s fair to say that the public doesn’t really know how oil and gas get from remote, deep reservoirs to their gas pump or BBQ, whose job is it to explain it to them? I am forever baffled by industry’s apparent unwillingness to showcase its impressive use of technology in terms of exploration, extraction and management of the resource.

Last year I heard a Syncrude executive lament the irresponsibility of environmentalists to a sympathetic industry crowd. When asked what he was doing to build the reputation of his company and the oil sands in general he said “This is the 14th time this year I’ve given this talk”. So that was his idea of PR, preaching to the choir.

Part of his presentation centred on the recent investment of several hundred million dollars in advanced scrubbers at Syncrude, to make the emissions even cleaner. I couldn’t help thinking that if the company spent a fraction of that on real public relations that it might actually help get the message out.

Image building takes money and hard work – something industry has seemed almost universally unwilling to invest. One recalls that, at the turn of the last century, John D. Rockefeller – founder of Standard Oil – was the most hated man in America. After his company was broken up by the federal government, he went to Madison Avenue to hire some help.  It took 25 years, but by the 1930′s Rockefeller was known primarily as a philanthropic grandfather – having given away hundreds of his millions and dimes to kids he passed on the street.

There is no sign that our industry is ready for a similar full court press. As it stands, many Albertans are either ignorant of the importance of the industry, or are openly hostile to it. One of Levant’s main antagonists, Andrew Nikiforuk, is a case in point. Having previously argued that low levels of industry-generated hydrogen sulphide is causing chronic illness throughout Alberta, he is now a fervent opponent [5] of the oil sands. He ridicules the ethical oil argument suggesting Canada and Alberta “remain at the bottom of a very dirty barrel, a step above the worst but a valley below the best.” You heard right, Canada is a step above Sudan and Nigeria. This smacks of what Ezra has identified as one of the main rhetorical arguments of the anti-oilers – comparing the Canadian industry to non-existent perfection, rather than where most of the world’s oil actually comes from.

To be fair, Nikiforuk now gives one example – Norway – as standing head and shoulders above Canada. This merits some comment. First, it would be refreshing if the opponents of free enterprise wouldn’t always turn to Scandinavia for their ideal societies. Norway is, with less than five million inhabitants, less than twice the size of Alberta. It’s fans might take pause at its 49% marginal income tax rate, three percent higher than Canada’s – and its 25% VAT. Yikes. Off course Norway’s oil lies entirely off-shore, meaning there is no on-the-ground impact.

None of this invalidates Levant’s argument. Most of the world’s oil comes from very nasty, if not out-right murderous regimes. Fact is, except to the most slanted observer, our industry is responsible and ethical. But as Ezra points out, it’s safer and easier to pillory meek Canadians than to protest oil development in, say, Iran. Too bad our industry leaders won’t step forward, even to state the obvious.

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URLs in this post:

[1] new book: http://ezralevant.com/2010/09/ethical-oil-the-case-for-canad.html

[2] here: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2010/09/21/peter-foster-ethical-oil/

[3] shrill opposition: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2010/12/02/kevin-libin-emerging-oil-sands-ad-battle-getting-personal/

[4] Red Adair: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Adair

[5] fervent opponent: http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2010/09/22/EthicalOilFallacy/

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