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Is There Really Such a Thing as “Ethical Oil”?

A trip to a tar sands conference and trade show offers a glimpse into the oil industry’s Id

It’s late afternoon on the third and final day of the “Peace Oil Sands Conference and Trade Show” held last May at the Belle Petroleum Centre in downtown Peace River, Alberta, and author and television host Ezra Levant is giving his keynote address titled Ethical Oil to a room of approximately 100 executives from Canada’s oil and gas industry. Levant is fired up as he declares: “If someone ever in their life tells you that your oil is immoral, that you’re a climate criminal … stop them right there and say: ‘Oh no, I’m not an oil man. No sir, no ma’am. I’m an ethical oil man.”

Fort McMurray, AlbertaPhoto by kris KrügFort McMurray, Alberta. “Good neighborly” activity by oil companies in this region — venting emissions from highly concentrated bitumen tanks into the air — is making some local residents sick.

With those words, Levant drills to the essence of his role in Peace River. He’s there to give moral and ideological cover to the companies that are busy digging up the oil desposits along the Athabasca River, deposits that have been shown to be more carbon intensive than more conventional sources of oil. Levant’s speech is, basically, damage control, and it’s a well-practiced schpeel. Levant is host of “The Source” a daily TV program on the Sun News Network (the Fox News of Canada), a platform he frequently uses to offer justifications for the Canadian petro-state.

“If you believe in making the world a better place, if you believe in the environmental credo of ‘thinking globally, act locally,’ then you must come to the conclusion I have,” Levant said during an October 2011 episode titled Ethical Oil versus Conflict Oil, based on his national bestselling book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, which won the National Business Book Award earlier that year. “[My conclusion is that] we must in fact follow our morality and produce as much oil sands oil as possible, knowing that every extra barrel we produce and sell to our American friends, or even if we export it to Asia, is one less barrel that will be sold by a Saudi Prince, an Iranian terrorist-supporter, a Nigerian kleptocrat, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Every barrel of oil that we sell is one barrel less that the bad guys sell.”

On its face, it seems like a good argument … as long as you ignore the fact that oil is a fungible commodity, and that one more barrel of petroleum from Canada doesn’t necessarily mean one less barrel from Saudi Arabia. Or the fact that the climate doesn’t care where the oil comes from. (Although, for nuance sake, bitumen production is more carbon-intensive than conventional crude oil production.) Or the fact that many Canadian First Nations see the tar sands extraction as a violation of their longstanding treaty rights, surely an ethical infraction. 

It seems, to me at least, that Levant is peddling xenophobia and chauvinism. I decide to tell him as much — in the form of a question. Standing at the audience microphone during the question-and-answer period following Ethical Oil, I offer: “Saying ‘every barrel of oil that we sell is one barrel less that the bad guys sell’ and that ‘God gave the oil to all the world’s bastards’ — don’t these approaches breed hostility, fear, superiority and division between and within?”

“You’re saying some of my language is critical or insulting,” Levant begins. “To call Saudi Arabia, Iran, Boko Haram and Nigeria bastards is an insult, you’re right. And I feel insulting towards them. I despise them. They are odious. But instead of kidnapping 277 [sic] of them, I’m just going to use my words so there’s no moral equivalence between the people who are building nukes to nuke us and me insulting them verbally in a democracy.”

The man who likes to call himself “Canada’s foremost freedom fighter” continues: “In Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Venezuela and all these other places, they throw their complainers in jail. So I will accept your criticism that I use florid language and [he whispers] I sometimes swear. [The audience laughs.] I’m trying to wake people up that there are places in the world far worse than this.”

I push back: “Language is powerful and it can be used to shift and evade responsibility … ”

Levant interjects: “I’m trying to wake people up! I want [Albertans] to be proud of the way they live and work. I want to put in context any ‘crime’ they commit with real crimes in the world. Am I using insulting language to describe people who stone women to death? If I was speaking honestly, I would be swearing about those people right now — a blue streak. So I’m not even expressing the real depth of my hatred for them. And it’s hate. I hate the Ayatollahs of Iran. I hate the way they treat women and gays. And I’m not even a feminist-gay activist [the audience laughs], but I hate it.”

***

oil barrels Photo by ezioman/FlickrOne more barrel of petroleum from Canada doesn’t necessarily mean one less barrel from Saudi Arabia.

The Peace River area has the third largest deposits of bitumen in Canada. Located in the “golden” (i.e., ethical, moral, good) heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry, Peace River is approximately a 420 mile drive southwest from Fort McMurray’s tar sands, and approximately a 430 mile drive northwest from Hardisty, Alberta, the starting point of an extra-large question mark known as the Keystone XL pipeline. In short, it’s just picture-perfect for an oil industry conference. 

The day prior to Levant’s keynote address, I’m walking around the Trade Show pondering: What ethics are the “good guys” and girls selling?

Kirby Dachuk, 41, has been working in Alberta’s oil industry since age 15. He’s currently a field technician for Sewage Master, a local company that provides mobile sewage treatment and collection for oil exploration in remote areas. Standing against the backdrop of Sewage Master’s Trade Show booth advertising “The Cleanest and Most Environmentally Friendly Sewage Treatment Anywhere!” I ask him about the ethics of the oil industry.

Have you met any bad people here? We’re all pretty good,” he replies. “Everybody is trying to be safe and trying to look out for the environment, and there’s lots of rules and regulations we have to follow to stay in them guidelines to help decrease the impact … [Those people who are anti-oil sands] do they have cars? I’m sure they do. Do they want to go on holidays? Do they fly places? Obviously. They need oil.”

OK. Fair enough. There’s nothing inherently evil about porta-potties. But surely there is a larger agenda at work. Motioning toward the Trade Show exhibits, I ask, “Is all this less about environmental impacts, public demands and workers on the ground? And more about corporations wanting more money and Canada promoting itself as an energy superpower?”

Dachuk tilts his head in deliberation: “Maybe we’re sucking it dry and one day this world will just [claps hands together] collapse. Maybe, but who knows? In the meantime, I still gotta keep doing what I’m doing to survive. And if I don’t, I lose my home. My kids don’t get a bike once in a while … They don’t get shoes. They walk around like cavemen.”

He continues: “The oil sands help a lot of people, more than what people see. Look at the money that Canada sends to other countries for relief. We helped with the tsunami, all them landslides, all them floods … ”

I interject: “You could say all of that is related, though.” I’m speaking about the extreme weather events linked to global warming, and Dachuk gets my point.

Yeah, it’s possible,” he says. “But is this [an oil sands conference and trade show] doing it? I don’t know. Do you know that? Is there a heaven or is there a hell? I don’t know. I would like to know. But apparently I heard there’s a heaven.”

Nearby, another company trumpets that it is a “Good Neighbour.” The booth belongs to Baytex Energy, an oil and natural gas company based in Calgary. Earlier this year Baytex launched “a company-wide initiative that focuses on being a good neighbor,” as Darcy, a Baytex community relations advisor, tells me: “In March [Baytex] sponsored a free family skate at the Baytex Energy Centre in Peace River.”

But I’ve heard the news, and the unpopular truths. Baytex leads a double life in the Peace River area. Some families aren’t skating.

In 2011 Karla and Alain Labrecque and their two young children abandoned their home and farm in Reno Field, a rural community in which Baytex operates. They were the first of seven families to leave the area approximately 20 miles south of Peace River due to the following “neighborly” activity: Baytex (legally) vents its emissions from highly concentrated bitumen tanks into the air. Some people in the area have become sick from the routine practice.

As journalist Michael Toledano reported for VICE: “residents blame bitumen emissions for their seizures and shakes, eye twitches, muscle pain and spasms, numbness, crippling headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, short and long-term memory loss, slurred speech, slowed thought, loss of hearing, shallow breathing, blackouts, swelling, sinus irritation, metallic taste, no sense of smell, nosebleeds, blood in urine, rectal bleeding, chronic heartburn, insomnia, inability to stay awake, intoxication, sedation, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, weeping, weight loss, sweating profusely, hot and cold flashes, and bruising.”

In 2012 the Labrecque family launched a campaign to hold the company accountable. They wrote: “Breathable air and a thriving energy sector are not mutually exclusive. We want Baytex to be accountable for emissions forcing us from our homes.” The following year, along with two other families, the Labrecque’s hired Keith Wilson, a lawyer from the Edmonton area that specializes in landowner rights. Together they filed an application for an injunction against Baytex.

On March 19, 2014, the Court of Queen’s Bench in Peace River heard the families’ case for “an eight-month interlocutory injunction enjoining Baytex from continuing to release toxic or offensive emissions from its 86 heated bitumen tanks surrounding [the families’] properties in Reno Field.” During the suspension Baytex would be ordered to install tank-top vapor recovery systems on all sites. The families still await the verdict.

All of this came to mind as I was standing against the backdrop of the Good Neighbour advertisement. I ask Darcy for her definition of a good neighbor.

“[The Good Neighbour program] came from our president. We were toying around with ideas, looking at all the other companies’ [slogans] — ‘expect respect’ or ‘courtesy matters’ or ‘energy matters’ or  ‘earth matters’ — and our president said: ‘We’re just trying to be a good neighbor. Let’s just cut to the chase and say what we’re trying to be.’ Because we’re drilling in people’s backyards, we’re driving through their communities, we’re their neighbors. We’re here.”

What is a bad neighbor like?” I ask.

Hans, another Baytex employee, joins in: “I don’t think we have ever thought about it that way … I don’t think it’s in our view to compare us with a bad neighbor. Who would that be?”

“Because then we’re getting into finger pointing and we don’t want to do that,” Darcy adds.

It’s more about hand shaking than finger pointing,” I say, allusively referencing the clasped hands of a rural landowner with a Baytex oil man featured in a Good Neighbour advertisement that was recently printed in the local community newspaper.

Yeah, it’s not about who is the bad apple in the bunch,” Hans says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. We’re not trying to recover oil at any cost. We’re trying to do so in a responsible manner. We’ve always done it that way … maybe the perception just hasn’t been there.”

***

Later that day I’m still trying to make sense of the oxymoronic “ethical oil” when I meet Diane Plowman, a retired nurse, who is registered as a community member at the Conference. We speak outside, next to the Belle Petroleum Centre’s front entrance. I ask her about the ethics of the “good guys” and girls.

“Many of us [local residents] were and continue to be long time professionals in the public sector,” she says. “We’re educated and experienced in the issue that there is a service to the public — that’s the value of our jobs.” She continues to tell me about her experience living in Three Creeks, a rural community approximately 16 miles northeast of Peace River, where, it becomes clear, Baytex also leads a double life. “In dealing with industry it became a long journey [over five years] to understand that the mentality is ‘get the product out of the ground, get the money in the bank, pay shareholders, make a huge profit and pay a little royalty to the government.’ That kind of ‘grab and greed’ mentality was really hard to get our heads around.”

Plowman doesn’t consider Baytex a good neighbor. “Buzzwords,” she says when I ask her about the Good Neighbour (Canada uses British spelling) program.

In late January Plowman and other residents attended an eight-day public hearing that was organized by the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). The hearing, also held at the Belle Petroleum Centre, examined “impacts from heavy oil operation emissions and odors” in the Peace River area, which includes both Three Creeks and Reno. The proceeding was prompted by the 881 odor complaints sent to the AER by residents between January 2009 and November 2013. In addition to Baytex representatives, Shell Canada was answerable to the AER panel. Husky Energy, Penn West Exploration and Murphy Oil Corporation, which also have operations in the area, did not provide oral evidence nor did they make themselves available for questioning at the hearing.

Plowman took the witness table and presented the emissions summaries she had been logging for over three years. Her documentation features a column titled Health Effects Noted at Time of Emissions, which includes symptoms such as “nausea, exhaustion, sinus congestion, burning eyes, joint stiffness, joint pain, skin irritation, throat irritation, nose irritation, sedated feeling, and shortness of breath.”

In April the AER released a report based on the January hearing “recommending” that “all existing heavy oil and bitumen operations in the Three Creeks and Reno area capture produced gas by August 15, 2014.” This is a recommendation that the Labrecque family personally made to Baytex more than two years ago. Keith Wilson, the families’ land-rights lawyer, calls on oil companies to follow their self-proclaimed morality: “At anytime Baytex can make the decision to do the right thing and close [the open-vented tanks] and stop the emissions, but so far Baytex has chosen profits over people.”

I ask Plowman for her definition of “profits over people.”

“Everybody needs to live safely, live in a healthy environment, and make a reasonable living,” she replies. “Going beyond that seems pretty greedy, from a resident point of view, when you see industry driving like bats out of hell to get to the bank to pay their shareholders, and paying no attention to our health and safety concerns.”

“It’s the grab and greed’ mentality,” I say. Plowman nods in agreement. This mentality, like “profits over people,” is about following money, not morality. Enter an Orwellian interpretation of Levant’s theory: all Canadian oil is ethical, but some barrels of Canadian oil are more ethical than others.

Plowman shakes her head in frustration: It’s so hard to get people to go beyond their wallet and say: ‘Is this the right thing?’ Not just: ‘How much money can I make from this?’”

Elle Kurancid
Elle Kurancid is an interdisciplinary newsgatherer from Peace River, Alberta, Canada, and is currently based in London, England. Portions of this article originally appeared on the VICE website. Kurancid did the reporting and photography for that article, which Michael Toledano wrote.

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