Ethical Oil: Greenwashing Canada´s Oil Sands?

“Ethical oil” is a relatively recent label used by oil producing countries and companies in order to appeal to the conscientious consumer. In this article Carlos Rosado examines the claims Canada makes for why oil extracted from their soil is more “ethical” than elsewhere. He finds that such claims are part of a greenwashing, an “evolving political discourse in which Canada is increasingly abdicating its international responsibilities in favour of the short term benefits which unsustainable resource extractions affords the state.”

Illustration: Luis Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Canada has long enjoyed the image of a democratic, prosperous and internationally responsible nation. International perceptions of Canada as a “northern gentle giant” are likely due (at least in part) to its relative military and economic inconsequence when compared to its larger and more aggressive southern neighbour. Although Canada has traditionally had a mixed record regarding environmental management, over the past several decades there has existed a sense that Canada is one of “the good guys” and that despite its shortcomings it remains environmentally progressive and committed to addressing global environmental issues such as ocean acidification and climate change.

However, Canada’s environmental progressiveness has been called in to question by many domestic and international observers in light of the increasingly aggressive exploitation of Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s oil sand reserves. The exploitation of said oil sands is nothing new, but raising oil prices coupled with technological advancements in bitumen extraction and refinement have in recent years lead to a dramatic increase in production and expansion of the oil sands themselves. As of 2010, investment in the oil sands, including pipelines and upgrades totaled $200 billion, making the oil sands project the largest energy project in the world.1

It is often noted that Canada’s leadership role in moving forward with international environmental agreements has in recent years suffered much erosion. This much is clear when we consider that at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit Canada was a key player in the development of the Climate Change Convention, and a leading member on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, in December 2012 Canada became the first country in the developed world to pull out from the Kyoto accord while citing the 14 billion dollars in penalties which such a move would save the country.2

Canada’s increasing exploitation of its oil sands and the decision taken by the government of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper to withdraw from the Kyoto climate accord, are symptoms of an evolving political discourse in which Canada is increasingly abdicating its international responsibilities in favour of the short term benefits which unsustainable resource extractions affords the state. Furthermore,  the Canadian government and special interest groups such as those represented by the ethical oil movement are actively attempting to steer the conversation around oil sand production away from  the environmental impact and towards issues pertaining to human rights and (to a lesser degree) the superiority of  Canadian environmental policy and practices.

The term ethical oil was coined by Ezra Levant in his book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. The book was seen by many as an effort to counteract environmentalists in Canada, the United States and Europe who advocated for the closure of the Alberta oil sands due to allegations that the resulting emissions from these reserves where up to 20% higher than the global average; although the precise accuracy of this statement remains highly contested. encourages people, businesses and governments to choose Ethical Oil from Canada, its oil sands and other liberal democracies. Unlike Conflict Oil from some of the world’s most politically oppressive and environmentally reckless regimes, Ethical Oil is the “Fair Trade” choice in oil.3

According to Kathryn Marshall (spokes person for the term ethical oil refers to four specific values inherent in Canadian oil production which are articulated as arguments for the ethical superiority of Canadian oil when compared to oil produced in nations under totalitarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Venezuela.4

1- The existence and enforcement of strict environmental controls which govern the activities of oil companies in Canada

2- Respect for workers rights; particularly safety and level of compensation

3- Respect for human rights (with a particular focus on women’s rights)

4- Peace and democracy (at a national level)

The first point refers to the existence of transparent government organizations such as Environment Canada “Which works to preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment”.5 While environmental controls in Canada are likely to be more effective than those in most other oil producing nations, there has been increasing criticism towards the federal government for what is perceived by many as a process of American style de-regulation of energy producing industries which favours self-enforcement on the part of corporations.

Recent efforts at de-regulation and the reformation of government in the U.S., and moves towards multi-stakeholder policy-making in Canada, have altered the standard against which trends towards Canadian American convergence must be assessed. Since Canadian environmental implementation has also been altered over the same period, however, it is argued that a form of ‘strong’ convergence is emerging, in which both countries are moving not towards each other but towards a third, common, style, that associated with the development of self-regulation and voluntary initiatives under the influence of New Public Management ideas and principles.6

There is also growing criticism toward the move taken in 2007 by Environment Canada which requires government scientists to clear all media requests to media relations headquarters, thus effectively muzzling government scientists on issues pertaining to the environment.

Across Canada, journalists are being denied access to publicly funded scientists and the research community is frustrated with the way government scientists are being muzzled. Some observe that it is part of a trend that has seen the Canadian government tighten control over how and when federal scientists interact with the media. As a result, media inquiries are delayed, and scientists are less present in coverage of research in Canada.7

While the previous examples are indeed troubling and seem to represent a move towards a degradation or watering down of environmental policy, it would be unfair to characterize the entire environmental bureaucratic apparatus of Canada as entirely deficient. That being said, the clear weakening of Canadian environmental standards coupled with the pro-development over environment discourse of the present Harper administration seems to leave little room for holding up Canada’s current environmental practices as a shining example of ethics by which something referred to as “ethical” could be marketed. However representatives from the Canadian Oil industry often argue that while Canadian oil may not be “perfectly ethical” it is still “more ethical” than say oil imported from the Middle East.

The second, third and fourth points outlined by Kathryn Marshall regarding the standards by which oil is deemed “ethical” are concerned with the protection of  individual rights and freedoms. While Canada certainly has an overwhelmingly positive record regarding individual rights, it is important to keep in mind that unlike countries such as Mexico or Norway, the Canadian state does not directly own or administer the various corporations engaged in resource extraction within its territory. While Canada is capable of guaranteeing the rights of its own citizens and guest workers trough the application of the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms, it does not have the ability to control or influence the activities of companies such as Exxon or Shell in their operations abroad. Let us then consider the following question: Is a barrel of crude oil produced in Canada by company X more ethical than an identical barrel of oil produced by the same company in Nigeria?

It would seem that by their own logic proponents of Canadian ethical oil ought to call for a boycott of energy companies who operate in countries whose regimes they describe as authoritarian, regardless of whether they also happen to operate in Canada. This however has not been the case. While it is troublesome and impractical to expect countries to police the foreign operations of all corporations which operate on its soil, it seems dubious to make claims which espouse the ethical quality of a product when the company which produces said product is actively engaged in un-ethical practices abroad. For example, when the media began to report that the uniforms to be worn by Canadian athletes at the Olympics games would be made in China, Canadian members of Parliament immediately began to question the appropriateness of the decision citing concerns about the message such a move would send to the world given working conditions in many Chinese textile manufacturers and China’s human rights record.8

Although objections to Chinese made Olympic garments and claims about the ethical nature of Canadian oil are extremely different, they none the less illustrate an apparent double standard which many law makers and proponents of the ethical oil movement apply to oil companies.

With regard to the point that Canadian oil is more ethical, than so called “conflict” oil from nations such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, because of Canada´s exemplary record of upholding women’s rights, the organization notes:

Every barrel of conflict oil from places like Saudi Arabia and Iran goes to fund medieval, bloody regimes that oppress women and treat them like property. Care about women’s rights and social justice? Then support ethical oil from places like Canada, where the highest standards of human rights and equality are upheld.9

Although it is clearly true that women in Canada enjoy more rights than women in Saudi Arabia or Iran, the claim that choosing “conflict oil” over “Canadian ethical oil” amounts to contributing to the oppression of women seems disingenuous at best. It is also important to note that given current trends in oil consumption, increases in Canadian oil production are unlikely to result in a reduced demand from oil producing nations such as Saudi Arabia. In many ways this argument seems reminiscent of claims made by the Bush administration in the United States before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which argued that the planned invasion had as one of its principal goals to free the women of the country from the oppressive rule of the Taliban.

It is important to note that the discourse surrounding ethical oil, although specific to its Canadian context, is not unique among oil producing democracies. In Norway for example the oil company Hydro claims that “We have to find more oil and gas and produce more energy to solve the energy crises and to help the poor countries to develop”.10 Additionally, The former Petroleum and Energy Minister, Torhild Widvey, claims “Norway has a global responsibility to provide the world with more energy, which will contribute to increased wealth in developing countries”.10

Although there are interesting philosophical conversations to be had by entering in to an ethical/utilitarian calculus regarding the pros and cons of different sources of oil, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that regardless of their country of origin, the emissions resulting from the of burning fossil fuels continue to contribute to the dire planetary crisis in which we currently find ourselves. By attempting to greenwash the Canadian oil industry (admittedly, no easy task!) proponents of the ethical oil movement are in effect distracting  the public from the real issues and the threat that the ever-increasing expansion of the oil industry represents. It is precisely because of this reality that politicians such as Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent has chosen to bypass scientific debates and attempted to influence public opinion by conjuring up images of suffering men and women in far away lands.11

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, it is essential that the voices of special interests groups such as those represented by the Canadian ethical oil movement are not allowed to drown out evidence based environmental discourses and politicize what the scientific community already knows; if we are to avoid catastrophic damage to our planet and the life forms which call it home, we must drastically reduce our carbon emissions and transition towards new technologies and consumption practices.

It is clear that there are no easy solutions or quick fixes to the dilemmas we are currently confronting. However, to sugar coat reality in an effort to further a political agenda which attempts to disingenuously trade off the health of our planet against the rights of individuals while simultaneously passing the buck to the next generation is simply not very ethical.

This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of Tvergastein, Interdisciplinary Journal of the Environment. Luis Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a master student at the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo. His main research interests are in the fields of Philosophy, Environmental Ethics and Mesoamerican Archeology. /


1 Nikiforuk, A (2012): Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver, DM Publishers Inc.

2 AP (2011, December 13): Canada abandons Kyoto Protocol  [online]. –URL:

3 Ellerton, J (2012):”About Ethical Oil.” [online].-URL: (retrieved 04May 2012).

4 Tremonti, A,  (2011, Dec 11). Ethical Oil  @ CBC The Current Podcast. Podcast retrieved from

5 Environment Canada (2012):”About Environment Canada.” [online].-URL: (retrieved 04May 2012).

6 Howlett, M (2000): Beyond Legalism? Policy Ideas, Implementation Styles and Emulation-Based Convergence in Canadian and U.S. Environmental Policy. British Columbia, Cambridge University Press

7 AAAS (2012): AAAS Annual meeting symposium (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Vancouver, Friday, February 17, 2012. Available at:

8 Price, B (2008, December 13):Canada’s Olympic Athletes to Wear ‘Made in China’ Uniforms  [online]. –URL:

9 Ellerton, J (2012):”Care about women’s rights? Support Ethical Oil” [online].-URL:’s-rights-support-ethical-oil/ (retrieved 04May 2012).

10 Wells, P (2012): Arctic Oil and Gas: Sustainability at Risk?. New York, Routledge. p. 230

11 Price, B (2012,  January 20):Canada’s crude awakening  [online].


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