Blogs & Comment

Ethical oil, Part 2: Which oil is the more ethical?

Which oil-producing country is without sin, and is that really the point?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept, without reflection, a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of human rights violations.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of what are likely to be the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production:

  • Russia — widespread political and economic corruption;
  • Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
  • United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
  • Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
  • China — human rights violations;
  • Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
  • Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
  • United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
  • Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
  • Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.
    • Feel free to add to the list your own potential points of criticism. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

      Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably, much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar, wind and geothermal.

      So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product—including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.