Postscript: Oil sands projects: a question of ethics

July 7, 2010   by Janet Keeping

The unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has prompted attempts to exonerate what’s happening in northern Alberta’s oil sands. Does the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico make the oil sands look good by comparison?

Actually it doesn’t, for even if it’s true that development of the oil sands wouldn’t do as much harm as the current fiasco in the Gulf, it doesn’t follow that oil sands projects are ethically acceptable.

An analysis of how, at what pace and even whether the oil sands should be developed entails careful consideration of a broad range of ethical factors. For example, is it appropriate to burn relatively clean natural gas to produce dirty synthetic crude? Or, can a development strategy that imperils the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, part of a globally significant watershed, be justifiable? As importantly, is it acceptable to let one of the greatest institutions ever developed—the Rule of Law—be eroded in pursuit of the oil sands?

Unfortunately, no such ethical analysis has been done. Indeed, when ethical considerations are raised—such as, is it justifiable to wreck an ecosystem to fuel over-sized, over-powered and inefficient vehicles—the people raising them are too often told, (by those NY Times columnist Tom Friedman recently described as “petro-determinists”), that escaping our addiction to oil is “impossible—so don’t bother.”

Instead of careful consideration, we too often get PR-speak from the industry. Who hasn’t heard such proclamations as the oil sands industry is not failing to protect people and the environment but rather failing to communicate effectively the good job it’s doing in protecting people and the environment. Even assuming that full development of the oil sands would not wreak havoc equal or greater to what we are seeing in the Gulf, less bad—even if true—doesn’t make it OK.

A project that leads to the extinction of 10 species is worse than one that leads to the extinction of five, but that doesn’t mean the extinction of five is OK. There are gradations of bad, but all are still bad.

Sometimes we are faced with only bad alternatives, and then we have to choose the least damaging, but our first ethical obligation is to avoid ending up in such a dilemma in the first place. The developed and developing economies have missed many opportunities both to avoid succumbing to an oil addiction and then, once hooked, they have missed more opportunities to kick the habit. But now is not the time to dwell on missed opportunities but to inquire, à la Friedman, how we can react to the catastrophe in the Gulf so as “to break our addiction to oil.”

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