Crude Conundrum

Canada’s Tar Sands Are Dirty, Dangerous … and Managed by Awfully Nice Folks. Does that Make them Ethically Just?

To get to the quaint village of Fort McKay in the far north of Alberta, Canada, you first have to pass through some version of hell.

Perched on the western shore of the Athabasca River, Ft. McKay is home to about 650 people, mostly Aboriginals from the Cree and Dene nations, with a smattering of Métis. The houses wind along the river bluff and spiral back toward the thick stands of fir that are shrouded in snow much of the year. A few log cabins are still around, but most of the homes are new: split level houses with all-weather siding in a few standard colors – white with blue trim, grey with maroon trim, beige. During the first week of January, many people still had their Christmas lights up, a postcard accompaniment to the puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys.

aerial photo of a mining complex, multihued ponds of waste visiblephoto Garth Lenz,

A generation ago, the trees at the edge of Ft. McKay continued unbroken into the wilderness. Today, the woods go only a short distance before hitting the interruptions of the oil industry – roads, power lines, smokestacks, and long lakes of hazardous waste surrounded by barbed wire. Ft. McKay sits at the center of the region’s tar sands deposits, and for dozens of miles around the town the forest has been stripped bare. At Suncor’s Steepbank/Millenium mine, humungous earthmovers chug through an arid moonscape, their loaders packed with black sand. At Syncrude’s upgrader – an enormous complex that transforms ore into synthetic petroleum – clouds of steam envelop a superstructure of pipes and tanks. Towers tipped with flame punctuate the pall of smoke. The scene resembles a city on fire.

For the residents of Ft. McKay, the industrial encroachment has become a background of white noise. From the front of Ft. McKay’s new daycare and elder center the great billows of a Shell upgrader can be seen to the northeast. The tip of a crane pokes out of the treeline across the river.

“We’re surrounded here, and whichever way the wind blows, we’re getting it. We’re slowly being killed,” Clara Boucher, a 62-year-old resident of Ft. McKay, said to me when I visited. “We have Suncor over there, and Syncrude, and Shell and Albian, and Total over there, and CNLR over there. We are right in the middle of all the oil companies.”

Boucher has long, straight black hair streaked silver and wears eyeglasses with a smoky tint. Her father and, later, her eldest sister were chiefs of the Ft. McKay band during the oil companies’ arrival in the area. In recent years she and another sister have become outspoken critics of the oil industry. “We used to live off the land a long time ago, and now we don’t,” Boucher said over coffee and Indian flatbread. “You have to go a long way to kill a moose, and because of the oil companies there’s hardly any trees. My husband says there’s less ducks than there used to be. He used to go out and come back with thirty ducks. Now he’s lucky if he comes back with eight. I don’t like it, but what can we do?”

That’s the question everyone in Ft. McKay worries about. Many people in the community are afraid that the oil industry is ruining their traditional way of life, making it difficult to hunt, fish, and gather foods from the bush. They fear that the industry’s relentless demand for water to separate crude oil from the deposits of bitumen has compromised the health of the Athabasca River they once got their got their water from. They are scared that the weird smells drifting on the air – like “cat piss,” one Ft. McKay elder called it – endanger their health. And yet there is not a person there who doesn’t understand that without the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry they likely would have no livelihood at all.

photo of a woman wearing a safety vest, standing in front of compressed gas cylindersCourtesy Sacred Land Film ProjectMarlene Orr fears health impacts from the tar sands industry.

Marlene and Mike Orr know this Catch-22 as well as anyone. Mike has served as one of five elected councillors for the Ft. McKay band since 1998, and during that time has helped manage the community’s relations with the industry. Marlene owns a small company, First Nations Welding, that works on scaffolding projects for the mining companies. So it wasn’t an easy decision when, last November, the couple went to the CBC to expose what they say is a dangerous waste disposal pond built by the company CNRL (Canadian Natural Resources Limited), whose mine and upgrader are directly north and west of the town.

“To speak out publicly was not a decision that Mike and I entered into lightly,” Marlene told me. As she spoke, there was a tremolo in her voice, and through much of our hour-long conversation I thought she was going to break into tears. “But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. We are trying to create transparency. How can a three-sided tailings pond be built without anyone in this province knowing?”

A tailings pond, where the oil companies put their wastewater, is typically banked on all sides. Last fall, Mike and one of the Orr daughters were out hunting when they came across a three-sided pond that was filling back into a creek bottom. To the Orrs, who later took a group of friends to the site to gather pictures, the open-ended hazardous waste seemed a clear violation. “When I first saw the video of the tailings pond, I was sick, I couldn’t sleep,” Marlene said. “When I saw it myself, I was with six people, and everyone was just completely silent. I wanted to cry. Our lives changed.”

When the Orrs took their pictures to the media, the issue generated a few days of controversy. Then provincial regulators said the pond was, in fact, permitted to have three sides, and that a natural slope on the fourth side would eventually serve as a containment. The Orrs, like many other people in Ft. McKay, were shocked: “The media made such a big deal that CNRL was operating within their permit, but that doesn’t make it right,” Marlene said. “That tailings pond is only a few kilometers from our water intake. Everyone in this town already has skin issues. The kids won’t drink the tap water, they’re scared to.”

As the Orrs expected, the whistle-blowing has come at great personal cost. Some of the Orrs’ relatives have shunned them. Marlene said that one of their dogs had been killed, and that two of their daughters had been assaulted at school. She told me, “On a personal level, I would love nothing better than to take me and my kids out of here and get away from this poison. But who would stand up?”

The residents of Ft. McKay aren’t just surrounded: They are trapped, held hostage to an industry that at once feeds them and ruins the foods on which they have always depended. Ft. McKay’s dilemma – it can’t live with the oil industry, nor survive without it – is the predicament of all of oil-dependent North America, just rendered into dramatic relief. For the people of Ft. McKay, the tradeoffs are apparent. For those in San Francisco or, say, Sarasota, the cost-benefit exchange is often hidden. Or we choose to ignore it. But the choice is there nonetheless: What (or who) are we willing to sacrifice to maintain our easy and convenient lifestyles?

“What people outside of here need to understand when you’re talking about the impacts of oil sands, it’s not black and white,” Marlene said. “Everybody gets the health concerns, the traffic problems, the light pollution. But people are unwilling to speak out because this community is 100 percent dependent on the oil sands. There’s not a job here that’s not connected to the oil sands. Every one of us here in this community has ambivalent feelings – the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the impacts on band governance. But what do you do? Bite the hand that feeds you? ”

photo from above a snowy industrial landscape, a ice-covered river in the foreground, steam rising from smokestacks behindDavid Dodge, The Pembina Institute, oilsandswatch.orgHeavy metals from the updgraders have been found 50 kilometers away.

As Marlene waited for my scribbling to catch up to her rush of words, Mike rushed into the room yelling, “There’s been an explosion at CNRL!”

Panic shattered the afternoon quiet. Mike and one of their daughters darted outside and jumped into the family’s minivan to see if they could get closer to the plant, located just down the road. Marlene grabbed for her phone to start making calls to learn more. I threw on my boots and ran outside. A huge cloud of black smoke hung over the river. I caught a whiff of tar scent on the air.

It turned out that a coker at CNRL had caught fire about 30 minutes earlier. Five men had been injured, several with severe burns. The company was evacuating the plant. Meanwhile, no one in town seemed to know if they were in danger and, if so, what to do. “This is the problem,” Marlene said to me before going back inside to make more calls. “These companies all have their emergency procedures. But for us – nothing.”

In 1778, the Scotsman Alexander MacKenzie was charting the rivers of the far north when he came across an area of “bituminous fountains.” A century later, a Canadian named Charles Mair set out to learn more about what Canadian officials were calling “the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world.” Working with Métis guides, Mair found a place where the banks of the river were “streaked with oozing tar.” The local Cree said they used the stuff to seal and repair their canoes.

The Athabasca tar sands are the largest proven reserve of petroleum outside of Saudi Arabia. Unlike conventional oil deposits that lie deep underground or beneath the ocean, these are relatively shallow. The petroleum there formed about 100 million years ago and then, over eons, migrated upward, settling into the bottom of an ancient river where bacterial degradation mixed it with sand and silt. When piled into a Caterpillar dump truck, the result resembles packed brown sugar – smeared with asphalt.

But though oil in the tar sands appears close, it’s incredibly difficult to get to. Separating the petroleum from the sand involves an energy intensive process that, according to environmental groups, makes it one of the dirtiest oils on Earth.

It takes two metric tons of ore to create a single barrel of oil. Not until 1967 did a company find a way to make the extraction profitable, and even then, high costs meant that tar sands oil wasn’t economically competitive. During the low oil prices of the 1980s, the tar sands industry nearly collapsed. As late as the 1990s many analysts were saying the effort was doomed. But as global oil reserves deplete and the “easy oil” runs out, the tar sands appear increasingly attractive. Tar sands production has doubled in the last decade as global oil companies have poured more than $50 billion into the region. By the end of 2010, the tar sands were producing 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. More than half of that goes to the United States.

Before they can begin digging up the tar sands, the oil companies first have to cut down the trees, peel off the top layer of peaty soil, and shove away the “overburden,” or subsurface rock. Getting the tar sands out of the ground is only the first chore. Then it has go through what’s called “upgrading.” First the sands pass through giant tumblers and separators to create a “bitumen froth.” Next, the mess is distilled into the distinct elements of petroleum – butane, gasoline, kerosene, gas oil – and run through a thermal conversion and a catalytic conversion to remove sulfur and coke. Finally, the different parts are recombined to create a synthetic crude oil. Only then is the product ready to go to a refinery.

Fighting Spirit

Given the threat they pose to regional water and air quality and their especially heavy carbon footprint, the tar sands mines have attracted the ire of a broad range of environmental groups. ForestEthics has worked to get retailers such as Whole Foods to boycott oil derived from tar sands. Greenpeace activists, using their signature stunts, have on several occasions briefly shut down mines with occupations. Environmental Defence-Canada has churned out a raft of studies and the Natural Resources Defense Council has lobbied officials at the highest levels.

Yet when the British Co-operative Bank was looking for a tar sands initiative to throw its financial support behind, it was a legal challenge against the governments of Canada and Alberta by the Beaver Lake Cree – a First Nations band of just 900 people – that caught its eye. …more…

Common sense would suggest that this demanding process can’t possibly be very good for any people, plants, or animals nearby. Even the oil workers are discomfitted by the sights and smells. When a young electrician at Suncor told me about river rafting in the summer, I asked if she meant on the Athabasca, and she looked at me like I was crazy: “Uh, no – that would be scary.”

Exactly how scary is a matter of heated debate. David Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, has been studying the tar sands since the 1970s and has identified a number of concerns. The upgrading process takes about three barrels of water to make one barrel of oil, and Schinlder says the water withdrawals from the Athabasca River are unsustainable. A research team coordinated by Schindler has also found indications that the tailings ponds are leaking into the river. Perhaps most worrisome, Schindler said, are the airborne emissions that land on vegetation, are eaten by animals, and then bioaccumulate up the food chain until they reach people. “We found polycyclic aromatic compounds and mercury and lead and arsenic and all sorts of other metallic contaminants, and we could detect them up to a 50 kilometer radius from the upgraders,” he said. “There’s a lot of pollution, and a lot of it lands on the river. We know that what lands on the snowpack ends up in the water.”

In addition to the regional ecological and public health concerns, environmentalists worry about the tar sands’ contribution to global climate change. Because of the laborious processes involved, the tar sands have an especially high carbon footprint. According to a report from Cambridge Energy Research Associates, getting a barrel of oil from the mines to your car involves 40 to 70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than does an average barrel. The oil companies say they have made major improvements to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity, but because of the overall increase in tar sands production, emissions from the mines have tripled since 1990, according to Environment Canada.

Industry and government officials – while conceding there are environmental impacts – say the risks are manageable. Preston McEachern, an official at Alberta Environment, told me his office is working hard to keep up with a rapidly growing industry: “We’ve been doing very well in increasing the monitoring of the oil sands.” He also questioned whether all the increase in heavy metals can be attributed to the oil extraction: “Yes, there are contaminants in the environment, but how much of it is coming from the oil sands is unclear.”

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the industry is doing everything it can to reduce the impacts. “Continual improvement is the order of the day,” he said, “and that extends to how we monitor, how it’s regulated, and how we run our businesses going forward.” Davies then offered the central defense of the tar sands extraction – Americans continue to demand oil, and it’s better to get it from Canada than the Middle East. “This is a critical part of the Canadian economy and the North American energy mix,” he said. “We have the largest energy trading relationship in the world. We are the Americans’ number one supplier of crude.… There is a case to be made for doing business with good neighbors.”

The sands have become a kind of hydrocarbon Rorschach test: They are either viewed as an economic engine providing a vital resource, or as an unrivaled environmental disaster. During a 2008 visit, Maude Barlow, head of the public interest group Council of Canadians, said the mines made her think of the blasted wasteland of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor. When he traveled to the mines last fall, US Senator Lindsey Graham said the site was “like an industrial ballet.” Even the resource’s name is in dispute. Environmental organizations say “tar sands.” Industry representatives and government officials prefer “oil sands.” (I’ve chosen “tar sands” based on the argument of Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk, who points out that saying “oil sands” is like calling a tree lumber, describing not the thing itself, but the human artifact.)

Whatever you call it, the real issue is not whether, or to what degree, the tar sands are “dirty.” After all, every hydrocarbon involves some level of filth. The more pressing question is whether the destruction is worth it. The contest over the future of the tar sands centers on whether, as some claim, oil from the tar sands is not just economically and strategically essential, but is the “most ethical oil in the world.”

As the smoke from the CNRL fire spread above town I drove back through the icy streets of Ft. McKay to visit a longtime Aboriginal leader, Lawrence Courtoreille, who has witnessed the spectacular expansion of the industry. Courtoreille was chief of the Mikisew Crew from 1974 to 1988. When he was head of the tribe, the industry was just barely eking out a profit and the Canadian government had only recently returned self-rule to the First Nations. Aboriginal groups weren’t in a position to influence, much less contest, the oil industry’s designs.

“Our people had been downtrodden for so long, we’d been stepped on so much, that we were all over the place, divided among ourselves,” Courtoreille told me. He is a burly man with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, a feather tattoo on his arm, and a fierce commitment to Aboriginal rights. “Now we’re in this position with their big fucking projects and we can’t find an organized approach to better our communities and better our environment. Until such a time as we can come up with a long term strategic plan to protect what our forefathers got us under our treaty rights, we’ll continue to be picked apart.”

The internecine divisions that Couroreille worries about are driven by a tension between cultural survival and economic success. It’s the same tension that Indigenous peoples from the coal fields of Arizona to the casinos of New England struggle with: how to guard traditional ways and still thrive in a market economy. For that matter, it’s not much different from the predicament of Cajun shimpers in Louisiana who have embraced the Gulf oil industry even as it erodes their way of life.

For Clara Boucher – who remembers once drinking right out of the Athabasca and now gets bottled water delivered to her by the oil companies – the tradeoff isn’t worth it. “You didn’t used to have this pollution coming atcha,” she said. “We like the way we used to live. We don’t like it as it is now. We like the trees. We like Mother Earth. They should leave Mother Earth as it is and not be so greedy.”

The concerns of Boucher’s family are widely shared in Ft. McKay. But their courage in speaking out is uncommon. It’s simply not easy to resist the money. “A lot of people don’t like it, but they have to get work to get the best benefits,” Clara’s daughter Cindy said. “It’s the culture shock. We either have to go with the flow or get left behind.”

But the flow entails some real risks. Everyone I spoke to in Ft. McKay expressed worries about the physical impacts of the pollution. Health concerns are particularly intense in Ft. Chipewyan, a First Nations community of about 1,200 people that is located further downriver from the industrial zone. According to a 2009 study by the Alberta Cancer Board, the cancer rate in Ft. Chipewyan is 30 percent higher than normal. “Cancer in our community had never been an issue until development started to happen 40 years ago,” said Lionel Lepine, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “Now cancer is a normal topic of discussion in town. It’s almost like, ‘What kind of cancer do you have?’”

Dr. John O’Connor, an Irishman who has been the primary physician in Ft. McKay for 12 years, says he has witnessed a number of ailments that he believes are linked to chemical exposure. “There’s been an increase, especially in the last two years, an exponential increase in difficult-to-manage respiratory problems,” O’Connor told me. “And a lot of skin problems, whole families coming in with persistent and peculiar rashes.”

Dr. O’Connor said that most recently he has seen an alarming number of people (“a couple of dozen”) who are suffering from vitiligo, a splotchy de-pigmentization of the skin medical experts believe might be linked to autoimmune disease. O’Connor told me that the irony of the affliction has not been lost on his patients. The native people of Ft. McKay are – in a real, physical way – turning white.

Forty-five minutes south of Ft. McKay is Ft. McMurray, the boomtown at the heart of the oil bonanza (See “After the Goldrush”). There, people’s opinions about the tar sands are far less conflicted. Ft. McMurray is a company town, and people there are, without fail, proud of their work and feel that they do dangerous jobs for the rest of us who depend on their product. “Dirty or whatever you want to call it, you still have to start your engines with it,” one Suncor employee said. They are also touchy and defensive, stung by the persistent criticism of what they do. “Because we’re Canada, we’re supposed to be perfect; we’re held to a higher standard,” another worker said. The prevailing opinion is that the mines and upgraders, as ugly as they may be, are a necessary evil. “It’s all dirty,” an oil services worker told me over beers. Then he leaned over the bar and said, “As long as the Americans need this oil, we’ll be here.”

After the Gold Rush?

The newest outpost of the global petroleum race is not far from the middle of nowhere. Two hours north of Edmonton the ranches and farms suddenly surrender to the vastness of Canada’s boreal forest as snow-frocked trees close in on the two-lane highway. In the depth of winter, the sun offers no more than a thin, brassy light to illuminate the tight-packed stands of fir and poplar. The bush stretches away in all directions.

Yet Alberta’s Highway 63 is as busy as any stretch of Southern California blacktop.…more…

The combination of pride and resentment is an echo of the tar sands’ best-known apologist, a conservative Canadian author named Ezra Levant. His 2010 book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, has become the definitive defense of the industry. While trickling down to rank-and-file workers, Levant’s arguments have also percolated up to the highest levels of government. The notion of “ethical oil” has become the basis of Canada’s energy policy.

In early January, the Conservative Party government’s new Environment Minister Peter Kent kicked off a controversy when he directly parroted Levant. “It is ethical oil,” Kent said of the tar sands. “It is regulated oil. And it’s secure oil in a world where many of the free world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.” A few days later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper – the son of an Imperial Oil accountant – defended Kent’s remark, saying, “The reality is that Canada is a very ethical society and a very secure source of energy for the United States, compared to other sources.”

If this is the standard by which the tar sands’ backers wish to promote the industry, then it’s only fair to ask: Is the oil oozing out of Alberta truly ethically justifiable? The answer represents nothing less than a test of North Americans’ moral compass.

The core of Levant’s argument is this: “Canada is one of the most hospitable places in the world to live, offering democracy, a stalwart commitment to the rule of law, and economic freedom.” This is a repetition of an argument long made by US foreign policy makers and their petroleum vendors in Calgary and Edmonton. The geographic proximity and cultural affinity between the United States and Canada offers a more reliable energy source than do the despots and crackpots in the Middle East, North Africa, or Venezuela. But Levant goes beyond the energy security claim to make a broader case that Canada’s oil is morally superior. “On every key measure, from women’s rights, to gay rights, to Aboriginal rights, to the sharing of the oil wealth equitably among workers, to environmental protection, Canada is hands down the most ethical major exporter of oil in the world.”

As Levant sees it, Canada is an ethical country, and Canada produces oil, therefore its oil is ethical.

Compelling as this might seem, Levant’s argument simply doesn’t hold up. His principal failure is the creation of a false choice: buying oil from Canada or buying it from somewhere else. This automatically fails on economic grounds. Because oil is a fungible commodity, an extra barrel of oil produced in Canada does not mean one less barrel from Saudi Arabia. The only result will be more oil and reduced prices – which could lead to the consumption of even more oil.

The case for ethical oil also fails to account for the fact that the real decision facing Albertans is not whether to shut down tar sands production today. With billions of dollars in investment already there, not even Greenpeace is making that demand. Rather, the question is whether the industry should keep expanding. Oil companies have plans to increase production to 3 million barrels a day by 2025. Should such a doubling in production be permitted? Or is there another path, a route to a clean energy economy that provides a different choice?

Levant doesn’t even deign to address the possibility that we could choose to use less oil. “What’s important for us to remember is that, despite the pipe dreams of environmentalists, our carbon-based economy isn’t going away,” he writes. “So we’re stuck with oil for a long time, whether we like it or not.” Levant’s ethical laziness is betrayed by that last phrase. In foreclosing the possibility of other futures, he surrenders human agency and avoids the truly tough moral choices. If another option is allowed to intrude, the ethics get more complicated. Can increasing oil production from the Canadian tar sands still be ethical if we know of another way that would involve less harm? Especially if we decline to pursue it because of the lure of profitability or the luxury of convenience?

The argument also fails in its central assumption – that Canada is an ethical society. On that point, many people who live in Ft. McKay or Ft. Chipewyan would disagree. “Canada wants to keep this image that we are the best country and the cleanest country in the world,” Lionel Lepine said to me. “But I want the US and the whole world to know that the people who are running this country are terrorizing us.”

Already, one Albertan First Nation has filed a lawsuit claiming that the tar sands have violated their treaty rights (See “Fighting Spirit”). If the Canadian Supreme Court were to rule in their favor, what then? Could the tar sands still be considered ethical if they were found to be based on a broken covenant? As Lepine put it: “It shows a lack of respect. Not only as Aboriginal peoples, they don’t respect us as human beings in general.” If the tar sands industry is based on a lie – or, at best, a grave omission – can it really be called moral?

The claim for ethical oil rests on the dubious moral logic of the lesser of two evils. Yes, Canada is certainly a more humane place than the monarchical theocracy of Saudi Arabia. But to be better than the worst is not the same as being good.

There is a deeper flaw in the case for ethical oil, and it strikes at the very heart of the morality that is used to defend other predations of corporate capitalism – from sweatshop abuses, to giant dams that displace whole villages, to the inequities of global commerce. Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

At its most candid, the oil industry doesn’t deny that tar sands extraction is problematic. As Travis Davies of the petroleum producers association said: “At the end of the day, no energy extraction is clean, and there is going to be environmental impacts.” Even a plaque at Ft. McMurray’s Oil Sands Discovery Centre museum is unflinching about the tradeoffs involved: “When we use energy from the oil sands to make our lives more pleasant, it has an impact and an environmental cost. New research can help us avoid some problems and limit others, but we cannot use energy and have no impact at all. We share the benefits of the industry and all of us – oil sands companies, governments, and consumers – have a part to play in ensuring those impacts are sustainable.”

photo of a building, words in neonCourtesy Sacred Land Film Project

This admission actually serves to defend the destruction occurring in northern Alberta. It removes much of the responsibility for the tar sands’ impacts from the corporations doing the actual work and puts it squarely on consumers. The moral challenge is clear: What are you, dear driver, willing to sacrifice to maintain your “pleasant” life?

If “problems” and “impacts” are assumed as a given, then the moral defense of the Canadian tar sands rests on the idea of utilitarian ethics. Ever since John Stuart Mill declared that ethics could be decided by figuring out what would produce “the greatest good for the greatest number,” utilitarianism has been the favored justification of the free market. In the grim language of economists, it’s called cost-benefit analysis, and it does enjoy the virtue of a certain clarity. It’s alright if a few thousand people somewhere toward the North Pole are poisoned so long as 325 million other people have access to affordable energy.

But the ethical numbers game falls apart if we consider the idea of distributive justice. What if the harm to some is so much greater than the benefit enjoyed by others? Or, in this case: Is it alright for some people to have their skin bleached so that other people can pick up a gallon of milk without too much hassle? Kant, at least, wouldn’t approve: The end (cheap gas) doesn’t justify the means (clearcuts and cancer clusters).

In the simplest language, the debate over the morality of the tar sands comes down to a plain choice of who and what we are willing to destroy. For some people, the destruction isn’t worth any benefits. “We should be figuring out the best path forward, not the lesser of two evils,” Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudma said. Hudema has debated Levant on television, and he has little patience for the claims about ethical oil. “I hate the argument that says we have to sacrifice some communities. I’m not going to go to people in Ft. Chipewyan and say you need to have your water poisoned, lose access to your ancestral lands, and suffer cancer – be sacrificed – so Americans can fill up their tanks.” In any case, the people in Ft. Chipewyan wouldn’t listen even if Hudema did. “You can’t put a price tag on our lives,” Lepine told me. “You can’t put a price tag on the lives of all the animals; you can’t put a price tag on our health.”

The claim for ethical oil rests on the dubious moral logic of the lesser of two evils.

Levant dismisses such viewpoints as “an unconventional version of ‘morality’ that weighs values entirely differently.” That might be true. Hudema and Lepine are, in fact, unconventional dudes, and their idea of justice may be out of the mainstream. But that doesn’t give credence to Levant’s use of what could be called high school ethics. In the end, he retreats to the popularity defense – the tars are alright because most people approve.

Of course, the majority can be wrong. The ethical argument in favor of the tar sands reminds me of a short story by the science fiction writer (and deep moral thinker) Ursula LeGuin. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas imagines a civilization that is about as close as you can get to heaven on earth. But the utopia is dependent on a fatal flaw. The ease and comfort of its beautiful citizens rests on the horrific abuse of a small child who is kept in a basement dungeon where it “sits in its own excrement.” Everyone in the perfect city knows this, just as they know that their “abundance … depends wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

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With its bell-clear parable, LeGuin’s story is a ringing indictment of the loose morals of our modern society. Beyond being just an attack on utilitarianism, the story is a challenge to imagine a different kind of ethics by which to live. The tale ends with a vision of those who decide that the debasement of a single child for the good of an entire city is not acceptable. They leave, and “go towards a place that is even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.”

The oil industry and its apologists like Levant are depending upon that very same “most of us” to continue going about our business and accepting the sacrifices. Because until many more of us choose to turn our backs and walk away, the mining of the tar sands – its immense profits, its unavoidable costs – will continue.

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal.

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