The Devil's Tears: Ezra Levant Buries the Truth in Alberta's Magic Sandbox

By Nikiforuk, Andrew | Alternatives Journal, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Devil's Tears: Ezra Levant Buries the Truth in Alberta's Magic Sandbox


Nikiforuk, Andrew, Alternatives Journal


Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oilsands, Ezra Levant, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010, 272 pages.

EVERY DAY, bitumen plugs up the economic and political works of Canada with another heavy headline. Thanks to the rapid development of the tar sands, Canadians can now read about dead birds, deformed fish, petro dollars, enraged greens or our diplomats' obstruction of climate change policies with numbing regularity. It seems that Canada has become a major oil exporter to the US with all the conscience of a drunk driver.

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Attempting to hand the driver another bottle, Ezra Levant, a former tobacco lobbyist and libertarian activist, offers the reassuring argument that it is all ethical in his book Ethical Oil. Compared to "real competitors" like Nigeria, Levant preaches, Canada is a haven of blood-free petroleum. Therefore, the world will only become a "better place" as Canada triples production from its tar sands. The right-wing hydrocarbon salesman even compares Alberta's bitumen to fair-trade coffee. But bitumen, a low-grade crude and a signature of peak oil, does not grow on trees, nor has it ever been harvested by peasant co-operatives.

While the oil patch and Canadian elites salute Levant's ridiculous arguments (comparing Canadian performance to the very worst in any global class is a well-practiced ruse for the morally challenged), ordinary citizens should be disturbed by the boldness of the deception. Anyone who places the adjective "ethical" in front of a commodity or activity such as slavery, tobacco or oil is usually trying to hide a mountain of morally inconvenient facts.

Oil, like most staples, has nothing to do with ethics. It's always about the money. (In Fort McMurray, workers call volatile bitumen fumes "the smell of money.") As a consequence, oil raises extreme and difficult issues everywhere it is produced. That's why economists generally refer to oil as "a curse." Easy revenue from petroleum invariably weakens institutions, retards economic robustness, captures regulators, undermines government, poisons landscapes and encourages politicians to exchange public policy for corporate gambling. Even John D. Rockefeller, the founding CEO of Standard Oil, rightly called oil "the devil's tears."

If Levant's argument held a shred of truth, surely blessed bitumen would be replacing blood-stained crude from the Middle East to make Canada more energy-secure. But it is not. Despite the bitumen boom, foreign crude imports to Eastern Canada have increased by 156 per cent since 1996. Quebec and Atlantic Canada are now more dependent on foreign oil (80 per cent) than the US (70 per cent). While bitumen flows south, half of Canada grows more dependent on a $20-billion-a-year addiction to oil from Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

This growing reliance highlights some peculiar moral deficits in Canada's claim to the status of "energy superpower." For starters, the North American Free Trade Agreement favours oil exports over energy security. Second, Canada has no national energy vision beyond a market free-for-all. Larry Hughes, a Dalhousie University energy expert, argues that the eastern half of the country must reduce its reliance on oil and switch to green power or face surreal volatility in energy costs.

If bitumen really possessed any miraculous ethical property, tar-sand investors might glow as benevolently as Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, the same morally challenged bunch that polluted the Gulf of Mexico and lied about climate change is now shoveling bitumen in Alberta's magic sand box. Total Petroleum, which supports the military dictatorship in Burma, plans to open a multibillion-dollar mine here. Shell Canada, which turned much of Nigeria into a bloody hellhole, considers the tar sands a key part of the "global energy-supply equation." Fxxon Mobile, which funded the smear campaign against climate change science, counts on Canadian bitumen for 12 per cent of its proven reserves.

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