Is Canada's Oil Ethical?

By Sandro Contenta

The Canadian government is pitching a controversial oil-sands pipeline through the United States as the "ethical" choice for energy consumption.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry oil sands bitumen, a thick form of crude oil, from the Canadian province of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in the United States.

About 1.3 million barrels of oil are currently produced from the oil sands each day, almost all of it going to the U.S. market. The $7 billion Keystone pipeline, proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., would transport an extra 500,000 to 900,000 barrels a day of oil sands bitumen to U.S. refineries.

Environmentalists on both sides of the border denounce it as a conduit for "dirty oil," out of concern for the pollution and ecological damage they say the pipeline would cause.

The Canadian government and the oil industry herald it instead as the source for "ethical oil."

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"Doesn't it make more sense to buy our oil from a democratic country and a neighbor like Canada, rather than buying it in the Middle East?'' said Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, after lobbying Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who fears the 1,660-mile pipeline threatens a major aquifer in the Husker state.

"Or, as we would say, undiplomatically, would you rather have your oil from Gaddafi or would you rather have it from Canada?" he added, referring to the Libyan dictator recently deposed by NATO-backed rebels.

Selling Alberta's massive bitumen deposits to Americans in terms of national security - a reliable energy source from a friendly neighbor - has long been the strategy of the oil industry and Canada's federal government.

The "ethical oil" argument was recently added to the pitch, and pushed so aggressively it recently triggered a diplomatic incident with Saudi Arabia.

At issue is a television commercial produced by EthicalOil.org, an oil sands advocacy group accused by environmentalists of being a front for "Big Oil," and founded by an activist with close ties to the Conservative government.

The ad says that last year, North America bought over 400 million barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia, a state that doesn't allow women to drive, or to leave their homes without their male guardians' permission.

"Why are we paying their bills and fronting their oppression?" said the ad, which ran on Canadian cable channels, including the Oprah Winfrey Network. "Today there's a better way - ethical oil from Canada's oil sands."

A lawyer representing the Saudis threatened EthicalOil.org with legal action. And the national CTV network decided not to air the ad after the Saudis informed it of the dispute.

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Sandro Contenta writes a weekly column on Canada for GlobalPost.

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