The 'Ethical Oil' bait-and-switch

Emma Pullman
By Emma Pullman
October 5th, 2011

In the ongoing campaign to put a positive spin on Alberta’s Tar Sands, proponents have deployed a new rhetorical attack: women’s rights. If you support women’s rights, say conservative pundits Ezra Levant and Alykhan Velshi, choose “ethical oil” over “conflict oil”. The phrase is now standard prose for the Harper government, eager to save the reputation of the much maligned “Tar Sands”.

Their website, EthicalOil.org, says those who oppose the expansion of Alberta’s Tar Sands are implicitly supporting petrocracies, like the government of Saudi Arabia, that oppress women. Getting oil from the Tar Sands is the ethical alternative, they claim, because unlike them, Canada supports free speech and women’s rights.

It is worth noting that Levant and Velshi have extensive ties to the Harper government, who themselves have considerable interest in the accelerated expansion of the Tar Sands. Levant is a former campaigner for the Reform Party and former communications director to Stockwell Day. He stepped aside in a 2002 by-election to let Stephen Harper be elected. Velshi is former Director of Communications under Jason Kenney and former Director of Parliamentary Affairs under John Baird.

I’ll hand it to them – Levant and Velshi offer a compelling bait: the opportunity to support women’s rights. But then comes their switch: we must support Tar Sands expansion and the Keystone XL pipeline, a $13 billion 2,673-kilometre pipeline that would carry half a million barrels a day (in addition to the half million already carried by its sister line, the original Keystone) of crude to Gulf coast refineries.

Their bait and switch is actually a logical fallacy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. In reality, if we actually want to take on Saudi sheiks, the best way to do that is to use less of the stuff and transition the economies of the world from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. Expanding the Tar Sands will have a negligible impact on Saudi oil profits because their oil remains cheaper to produce, and global demand for oil keeps going up. On the other hand, if we invest our creativity into breaking our addiction to fossil fuels then we would shake their power to its core. It’s that simple.

The Harper government and its allies are promoting Canada as a women-friendly alternative to “conflict oil” and repression, but the irony of claiming their support of women’s rights is that they are simultaneously defunding the vast majority of women’s organizations and programs.

Since 2006, Harper has cut funding for women’s advocacy by 43 per cent, shut 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices in Canada, and eliminated funding of legal voices for women and minority groups, including the National Association of Women and the Law and the Courts Challenges Program.

What’s worse, they cut funding from a project called Sisters in Spirit (SIS) – designed to identify and find 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Through the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Aboriginal women drove and led this initiative, whose primary goal was to conduct research and raising awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.

Amnesty International Canada says that Canadian police forces and governments have done little to prevent a long-understood pattern of racist violence against Indigenous women. According to Statistics Canada, First Nations women in Canada are five times more likely to die of violence than other women.

The defunding of Sisters in Spirit and other women’s programming is but the tip of the iceberg of a broader trend by the Harper government to amplify certain messages while silencing others. Tightening their control, they censor dissenting voices that are inconvenient to their agenda.

Nowhere have we seen this more clearly than in the Conservatives’ tireless efforts to silence climate researchers. They have backed efforts to quash climate policies outside Canada’s borders, using a secret Tar Sands advocacy strategy led by the Foreign Affairs Department, with officials working in both the U.S. and the European Union. They’ve worked to systematically remove funding of climate scientists and have cut virtually all programs aimed at funding climate science in Canada. One such program sent to the chopping block was the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS). The project supported 198 climate research projects around the country and provided $117 million in funding that has led to breakthroughs in climatology, meteorology and oceanography.

The Harper government even introduced rules to muzzle Environment Canada scientists, and their efforts have successfully reduced media coverage of climate science by over 80 per cent.

The Harper government and its allies can hardly extol their ethics record as they silence dissenting voices, kill funding of women’s programming and muzzle climate scientists. There is nothing ethical about oil, no matter where it comes from.

Don’t take the bait of ethical oil. We need real action and solutions to the climate crisis, not misleading rhetoric.

Emma Pullman is a Vancouver-based writer, researcher and campaigner focused on climate and sustainability issues. She is a contributor at DeSmogBlog.com where her research focuses on Canadian climate issues, including Alberta’s Tar Sands and hydraulic fracturing. Emma’s research has been featured in outlets such as the Huffington Post and LA Times. Emma is the Communications Advisor and campaigner with Leadnow.ca, a people-powered progressive campaigning organization.  This column originally appeared in the Common Sense Canadian. Reprinted with permission.

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