Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Ethical Oil by Ezra Levant - A Review
Ezra Levant is not afraid of controversy. As an active Conservative, columnist, talk show host and political activist, Levant’s views have often ruffled feathers and generated publicity. Given his right wing outlook, and the fact that he has recently worked for one of the world’s largest tobacco corporations, one might be tempted to dismiss his views about the oil industry as self-serving propaganda. But I don’t think it’s fair to tar Levant with this broad brush without carefully considering the arguments he puts forward in his 2010 work Ethical Oil.
I read the book, subtitled “the case for Canada’s oil sands” yesterday. The book is only about 234 pages long but I found the central premise to be extremely compelling. Levant argues that any consideration of the merits of Alberta’s oil sands projects should take into account a variety of political and other considerations, rather than environmental considerations alone and should weigh these factors against other world oil suppliers and against other energy sources. When taking into account a range of factors including treatment of workers, accountability of the oil companies, operation within a legal framework, and where the profits go, Levant has little trouble concluding that the Canadian tar sands are currently the most ethical source of oil in the world. I think it is hard to argue with that conclusion.
Entitled “the very short list of democracies that sell oil,” chapter 2 of Ethical Oil reviews the world’s major oil suppliers as a list of “dictatorships, human rights abusers and warmongers.” From Saudi Arabia, described as a major sponsor of world terrorism, Levant proceeds to examine Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela and Sudan, collectively a “rogue’s gallery” of some of the “world’s worst places.” He cites a quote from Michael Besancon of the chain Whole Foods, stating that “fuel that comes from tar sands refineries does not fit our values.” He proceeds to examine that suggestion by questioning whether places like Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Nigeria better suit those Whole Foods “values.” When politicians, lobbyists and corporations like Whole Foods state a preference for Saudi or Iranian oil over tar sands oil, have they properly considered issues like the promotion of peace, human rights and equality of men and women?
Levant is not afraid to tackle the environmental impact of tar sands development. One of his arguments here is to put things into context, particularly when weighed against other energy sources, other countries (particularly China) and even other oil producing nations. He points out that Canadian technology is constantly becoming more efficient and better environmentally, whereas the other oil producing nations are causing greater and greater damage.
Chapter 8, entitled “Greenpeace’s Best Fundraiser Ever,” includes this great question: “Why do the world’s most prominent anti-oil groups focus on Canada’s oil sands but virtually ignore polluting dictatorships that are worse by any conceivable measure?” Levant uses this segue to launch an attack on the hypocrisy of Greenpeace, which rails against nuclear power across the world but is largely silent when it comes to condemnation of China – particularly through Greenpeace-China. The book provides a detailed explanation of the issues affecting Greenpeace and ties this back to the type of unfair criticism that the tar sands face as compared to other, more polluting energy sources.
Chapter 11, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s War Against the Oil Sands,” includes some fascinating tidbits. Like the fact that Saudis spent $6.6 billion in a single year in the U.S. on lobbying efforts to polish their image in Washington. Or that they contributed some $10 million to Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library (as the single biggest contributor), $10 million to George H.W. Bush’s Library and, of course, tens of millions to Jimmy Carter, who is described by Levant as a “mouthpiece for Arab foreign policy.”(This probably wouldn't be too different from a description by someone like Dershowitz). Levant also points out that the Binladin family (yes, the same Binladin family) hired Al Gore to come give lectures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There really is something wrong with a world in which so much American and Western money continues to flow to such an obnoxious, undemocratic, terror-sponsoring regime.
Levant addresses the cost to the U.S. of securing and protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies (i.e. of defending the Saudis and other Middle Eastern countries) and juxtaposes that against the very substantial economic benefit to Canada itself (and the U.S.) of developing the oil sands. I won’t go through all of these arguments.
While it might be argued that Levant has downplayed or minimized some very real environmental damage that continued development of the tar sands would cause, the central thesis of the book is that this is one factor to be considered among a range of others. I think there is much to be said for Levant’s premise that a preference for buying oil from regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran could have much more dangerous consequences for the world – including the world’s environment and world peace – than Canada’s development of Alberta’s oil sands.
None of this is intended to prefer a long range preference for tar sands oil as the world's bright source of future energy for generations to come. But given consumption rates today and the world's massive reliance on oil, wouldn't it be better if more of the oil were to come from Canada?