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?


  1. I agree with the basic hypothesis of this book: that we "should take into account a variety of political and other considerations, rather than environmental considerations alone" when judging potential sources of energy.

    Actually, in some political circles (certainly not Ezra Levant's) this is nothing new. The environmentalists, for one, were pointing out some of those other considerations - in their lists of reasons to reduce our dependence on oil - a long time ago. But no one really cared. Actually, the very issues that Ezra has discovered in this book, including ""treatment of workers, accountability of the oil companies, operation within a legal framework, and where the profits go" were the sort of considerations that would illicit disdain from those in Ezra's political circles.

    No, I don't remember all these issues getting much traction until 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi revealed a domestic cost to these considerations, and suddenly the geo-political issues became real. Even more recently, people started pointing out the enormous environmental issues with the oil sands, and the defenders of the oil sands discovered the whole range of ethical issues involved in our support for many of the biggest oil regimes.

    Well, I'm sorry to write in this sarcastic, disdainful, tone, but I feel as though it is their self-interest and not their concern for the issues that has finally brought them around to recognizing, rather then sneering at, these considerations.

    Moving on, you mention that Ezra "is not afraid to tackle the environmental impact of tar sands development," but I don't see how this is possible... given that the biggest environmental issue involved is global warming and the organizations and media outlets that Ezra Levant is associated with appear* to think that man made global warming is a hoax.

    (*I say 'appear to think' because they have in recent years fallen into the cowardly but politically safe habit of attacking everything to do with global warming science and action plans, while avoiding explicit denial.)

    Some other minor points...
    - Regarding Greenpeace, it is important to note that they are an environmental group. I would expect them to focus on the environmental aspects of oil, as opposed to geo-political, social, etc. That is their job.
    - He might have wanted to follow his chapter about Saudi Arabia's lobbying efforts with a chapter about the Koch brothers' war against anything that stops them from polluting, particularly the idea of global warming. Both are fine examples of the inordinate political power of money, but I doubt that either really belong in this book.

    And yet, in the end I still agree with the book's thesis: that all these factors should be considered. But while Levant seems to believe that this means that we should depend more on an energy source that is destroying our planet (but happens to be lining the pockets of Ezra's buddies) many of us still think that this means we should try to reduce our overall dependence on oil. Even if that means building more public transit, taxing oil at the pump, developing wind and solar energy, and other socialist ideas.

    (BTW, I know Ezra Levant to be a political partisan - not someone I would look to for insight or objectivity on any political topic - but I don't know his positions specifically so I make the lazy assumption that he shared much of the political history as his fellow partisans. Perhaps I do him an injustice, but really, it is hard to imagine him talking about 'ethical' sources of oil before it became political useful for him.)

  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree with much of what you have said.

    I have not detailed his environmental arguments, though they are important. He does address the various environmental problems caused by the tar sands but also looks at and compares those problems to - specifically - the environmental problems created by other oil producers - and by other current forms of energy - including nuclear. He doesn't argue that future dependence on more oil is a good thing; But he does argue that while we need it now and we have a big source of it - it is better to get it from a democratic country like Canada that at least has some rules in place to minimize environmental damage to the extent possible and to regulate many other areas.

    His discussion of Greenpeace is quite interesting and I have not provided a full summary of it.

    The book is not an attack on the various issues that you mention - public transit, finding other sources of energy etc., though there is a section addressing the high cost and minimal efficiency (to date) of wind power - along with the damage it causes to birds in many areas (as compared to the damage caused by the tar sands). The book is also not a blanket rant, singing the praises of oil and downplaying global warming - even if Levant and many of his colleagues might believe or advocate that the problem does not exist. Essentially, in this book, he is saying, right now - the world is buying and consuming tons of oil. We are not about to stop that in the short term. Even though we may be dealing with these non-environmental issues far too late, it would be much better for Canada, for the U.S. and for the world, for some many reasons, if more of that oil came from Alberta rather than Saudi Arabia. I find this argument to be attractive even if Levant is somewhat of a political partisan.