“The birth of ethical oil”

In the story of “ethical oil” and “ethicaloil.org,” which lead Sunday Reader on Nov. 27, 2011, I unpacked “how a right-wing pundit created a catchphrase to win moderate hearts and minds.” As an explanatory piece, it was designed to examine  a term that continues to gather support as a defense of Canada’s and Alberta’s oil: its roots, its evolving meanings, and the challenges it raises for how we in Canada think about an environmental issue in the face of ever-increasing international scrutiny.

Its companion pieces included an A1 news story discussing the federal government’s use of the term going into an international climate conference, and an online timeline illustrating “ethical oil’s” history.

Here is the top of the main story:

“In the days after the U.S. government made it clear expansion plans for the Keystone XL pipeline were on hold until at least 2013, energy experts, industry insiders, politicians and others wondered aloud where Canada’s international oilsands message had gone wrong.

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper, just weeks before a decision was delayed to better study environmental impacts, had called approval of Keystone XL a “no-brainer.” Canada’s message throughout the debates, studies and protests of the cross-border pipeline, designed to carry Alberta’s heavy oil across several states to Texas refineries, had been simple: Building Keystone XL would create thousands of American jobs and ensure a secure supply of oil from an “ethical” neighbour.

“But amid a sea of hand-wringing and second-guessing, the conservative activist and author who first coined the term “ethical oil” stuck to his message.

“Writing a column for the Sun newspaper chain, the same media organization that televises his news show each day, Ezra Levant explained U.S. President Barack Obama had simply chosen “Saudi conflict oil” over friendly Canadian oil. Levant’s argument lined up with the heart of his 2010 book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Essentially, he wrote — and argues at every opportunity — Canada’s oil is a better buy than oil from other nations because of shared democratic principles and a supply at no risk of interruption caused by the kind of political revolutions seen in the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year.

“Meanwhile, Levant’s website, ethicaloil.org, announced a 30-second TV ad highlighting the ethics of Alberta’s oil by comparing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and Canada would make its U.S. television debut. The same commercial aired briefly in Canada this fall, sparking threats of a lawsuit from the Saudi government.

“National attention to Levant’s message and his website has made him a fresh voice of advocacy for Canadian heavy oil production.

“His supporters say he has managed to inject human rights and “agreed-upon western values” into a conversation on oilsands that, up to now, has been dominated by talk of climate change and slogans like “dirty oil.” Detractors say “ethical oil” presents a series of false choices, however, and ignores the measurable environmental impacts of the oilsands. Others, who appreciate the argument, nonetheless say it’s dicey to play up Canada’s human rights record in international negotiations when European and U.S. politicians are concerned about global carbon emissions. Even traditional oilsands champions, like the Alberta government and the industry itself, don’t wear “ethical oil” because, they say, they would rather focus on the work they are doing and will do in environmental stewardship.

“It has been nearly nine months since Levant turned the ideas in his 260-page book into the basis for a non-profit, donation-drawing corporation, the Calgary-based Ethical Oil Institute. And it is clear a defence of Alberta’s oilsands defined by comparing human rights is not going away. …”

UPDATE: In July, 2012, I followed up on the think tank’s financial records. The story appeared in the newspaper on 11 July, A4, and online here.

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