Ethics of the oil sands


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Over on BuryCoal, I have put up a post arguing that exploiting the oil sands is unethical even if it is financially beneficial to Canadians who are alive now.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 8, 2011 at 9:52 am

I don’t feel this is a very controversial argument. Personally I think it’s possible to make the more agressive case that the oil sands are unethical based merely on the harms being caused immediately to marginalized communities, and the poisoning of the Athabasca river system.

The fact that such projects go ahead despite massive environmental devastation that can be seen directly, not only implied through climate modelling (although, I believe that the climate impact will in the end be far more significant) is a sign of the weakness of our democracy. Weakness both in the sense of a tiny elite able to push its interests over the interests of marginalized groups, but also weakness in the mass of the citizenry to understand the political situation and act accordingly.

Milan March 8, 2011 at 10:07 am

Future generations occupy a special position from an ethical perspective. Because they have no power over us, while we have extensive power over them, they are defenseless from our perspective.

As the moral philosopher Henry Shue argues convincingly, the harm we are doing to future generations through climate change falls into the special moral category of harm deliberately inflicted upon the defenseless.

The case of current communities is more muddled. People accept the risk of being killed or poisoned in exchange for jobs all the time. Certainly, they sometimes do so under coercion, but we do generally accept that people can take risks with their own health and lives.

Tristan March 8, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Milan, for you to effectively say “the situation is muddled, but basically people take risks to get rewards” is the most obfuscating and irresponsible thing you’ve ever said on this blog. Not educating yourself on the issues of the impact of oil sands on Canadian first nations, not being aware of the calls for fair and informed consent, and putting it all into a category of “it’s complicated” is not acceptable. As a citizens of a racist, apartheid country, we all have responsibilities to take the present seriously.

If we want to, we can make Shue’s academic point, and I’m sympathetic to this argument – but while we make it we have to take seriously how offensive that point can sound to existing groups who are factually defenceless today.

Milan March 8, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I am just saying the argument with reference to future generations involves less uncertainty. For it to stand, you don’t need to prove that harm is being done to anybody right now, nor that the level of harm is not justified by some other benefit.

Tristan March 9, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Great. But unless people are willing to stand up and fight against the rising of the tide, moral principles remain, as my brother puts it quite eloquently “just saying words”. Words are powerful when people act on them, Rousseau and Marx are probably the best examples of that.

So, who are the people acting on words now? How can they be supported?

. March 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm

1.5 million: Oil sands production in 2010 (in barrels per day)

2.8 million: Total Canadian oil production in 2010 (in barrels per day)

3.0 million: Estimated oil sands production in 2015 (in barrels per day)

5.0 million: Estimated oil sands production in 2020 (in barrels per day)

10% – 15%: Typical return on an oil sands project in 2009

20% – 30%: Current forecast return on an oil sands project

. June 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein Call for Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands
Peter Rothberg
June 22, 2011

The Tar Sands, also known as the oil sands, are one of the largest remaining deposits of oil in the world, and efforts to extract the resource from a mix of clay and other materials underneath Canada’s Boreal forest have created the biggest, and by the accounts of numerous scientists and environmental groups, the most environmentally devastating, energy project on earth.

TransCanada, one of the largest companies involved in tar sands exploration, has proposed a 1,661 mile, 36-inch extension of the newly built Keystone Pipeline from Alberta, Canada to oil refineries of the United States. This would expand the capacity for refining oil produced from Alberta tar sands by approximately one million barrels per day.

Time for the fight-back.

A group of leading environmental activists, many associated with the grassroots group, and many of them Nation writers, have issued a call and invitation for concerned citizens to take part in a campaign of non-violent direct action this summer in Washington, DC, in all likelihood, organizers say, during the last two weeks of August.

Why DC in the sweltering summer? That’s when the State Department and the White House have to decide whether to grant a certificate of ‘national interest’ to some of the biggest fossil fuel players on earth, some of whom want to build the so-called ‘Keystone XL Pipeline’ from Canada’s tar sands to Texas’s refineries.

. March 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Oilsands critics in Europe to counter fuel directive lobby

Council of Canadians, Climate Action Network and Assembly of First Nations lobby European politicians

The Canadian government isn’t alone in lobbying European governments about the European Commission’s proposed new fuel quality directive (FQD).

A trio of stakeholder groups concerned about oilsands development were in London, England, Thursday, looking to counter the Harper government’s attempt at blocking the directive.

. March 26, 2012 at 10:27 pm


Thomas Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair proposes a new approach — a sustainable approach — for Canada’s economic development. He writes that our government is failing to address what may be the most important challenge facing our country today: managing the economic, social and environmental impact of developing the wealth of Canada’s oil sands. Under Stephen Harper, he writes, Canada has moved to block international agreements to fight climate change, failed to meet our own commitments to end subsidies to the oil and gas industry and is now seeking to export even more raw, unprocessed bitumen to the United States and China.

Thomas Mulcair estime que notre gouvernement est incapable de répondre à l’un des plus importants défis auquel notre pays est confronté actuellement : la gestion des conséquences économiques, sociales et environnementales qui résultent de l’exploitation croissante des sables bitumineux au Canada. Selon lui, le Canada de Stephen Harper a tout fait pour bloquer des traités internationaux de lutte contre les changements climatiques ; il a renié ses propres engagements de mettre fin aux subventions accordées aux industries pétrolière et gazière, et il cherche maintenant à exporter encore plus de bitume non transformé vers les États-Unis et la Chine. L’auteur propose une nouvelle approche, une approche durable, pour le développement économique du Canada.

Marcel Roy March 27, 2012 at 10:04 am

I am agree with Just Some News it’s true that the government did nothing but I will say that the Conservative will find shoes at their feet or in French chaussure a leurs pieds with Thomas Mulcair he will be on their back .

. April 5, 2012 at 11:58 am

Are new guidelines for charities just upholding current law or a way to silence oil-sands critics?

Kathryn Blaze Carlson Mar 30, 2012 – 6:52 PM ET

The Conservative government will keep a closer eye on environment-focused charities accused of breaking rules that cap their political activity, cracking down on groups that allegedly engage in politically charged work beyond the legal limit.

Thursday’s budget arms the Canada Revenue Agency with $8-million over two years to ensure charities devote their resources to charitable work and to improve transparency by asking them to disclose the extent to which their political activities are funded by foreign sources.

“[Some charities] are not acting like they’re a charitable institution; they’re acting like they’re an environmental lobbyist — that’s the big objection,” said Frank Atkins, a University of Calgary economist. “They’re hiding behind their charitable status.”

The revenue agency says a charity is allowed to devote up to 10% of its total annual resources to political activities, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said this week the government has received “a lot” of complaints from Canadians who worry their donations are going toward political action rather than charity work.

“There is clearly a need, in our view, for more vigilance,” Mr. Flaherty said.

Opponents of the move say this is part of a government ploy to silence oil-sands critics and those who oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline project, claiming the crackdown fits into a pro-business, anti-environment budget.

“I think this is also about diverting charities away from the work that they’re doing into providing all of the dotted ‘Is’ and crossed ‘Ts’ for Revenue Canada,” said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie, adding the rules will likely lead to random or complaints-based audits.

. April 20, 2012 at 11:42 am

People outside Alberta do not fundamentally care what the province does about purely provincial matters. Alberta can essentially do what it likes in health care, education, skills training, even tax policy. But development of the bitumen deposits is another matter, because the national economic impact is so great, the emissions (current and projected) are so significant and the reputational impact on Alberta and Canada so evident.
It is one thing for Alberta governments to defend the province’s climate change actions – to claim that critics do not appreciate what the province has been doing – while still accepting, as all Alberta governments have, that climate change is a reality. It would be quite another for an Alberta government to tell all other governments in Canada and national governments around the world that they are wrong and only it is right about the science of the matter.

. May 8, 2013 at 11:10 am
. September 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Neil Young calls Fort McMurray oilsands ‘a wasteland’
‘Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland’
CBC News
Posted: Sep 10, 2013 5:21 PM ET

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