Is Canada’s Oil Ethical?

Byron Williston rejects the standard arguments that Canada’s oil is ethical, and urges us to change current energy policy.    


If we believe the federal government, as well as websites like, we might reasonably conclude that Canada’s oil is ethical.

Indeed, we are told that the moral case for Canada’s oil is so obvious—Stephen Harper recently called the proposed Keystone XL pipeline a “no-brainer“—that opponents of the tar sands are now labeled ‘eco-extremists.’ In fact, such opponents have a very strong moral case, one resting on the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change and on the threats the latter poses to human health and security.

Three claims are typically advanced to show that our oil is ethical. But since they employ conspicuously lousy arguments, these claims should be dismissed and the energy policy built on them—which will lock us into a global carbon economy for the foreseeable future—should be abandoned.


The first claim is that Canada is alone among the world’s petro-giants in being a genuine democracy and that the goodness of our form of government somehow legitimates whatever products we sell. Of course we would dismiss this sort of argument outright if we were talking about, say, land mines or chemical weapons rather than oil. What this reveals is that the democracy-promotion claim is a red herring. What matters ethically is whether or not the product in question produces more harms than benefits.

Unfortunately, the long-term perpetuation of the carbon economy is very likely to cause severe harms to members of future generations. Nor will these harms be confined to the developing world, though it will bear the lion’s share of them. For example, the carbon emissions path we are currently on—the one the ethical oil folks want to keep us on—is likely to lead to a 70% increase in hazardous ozone days in Canada, a 70%-120% increase in the nation’s burned forest areas, and 3-8 times more heat-wave days in many of our cities. These effects—and there are too many others to catalogue here—will lead to sharp increases in morbidity and mortality in the Canadian population.

Moreover, there is no evidence that these harms will be outweighed by whatever ‘benefits’ increased warming may bring. For example, high northern latitude countries like Canada may see a boost in agricultural output as temperatures rise. And there will undoubtedly be a drop in the number of deaths related to cold temperatures. Even so, projections now show that if the temperature continues to rise, (a) agricultural output will ultimately decline dramatically, even in Canada; and (b) the number of heat-related deaths will begin to outstrip lives saved from cold-related deaths.

The second claim is that the tar sands will create thousands of jobs, which the eco-extremists want to destroy. As above, we would not give this argument the time of day if these jobs supported the production and export of land mines or chemical weapons. But there is a further problem with the claim. It is a false dichotomy: you’re either for jobs or against them. When a sector of the economy is forced to abandon one way of doing business, alternatives invariably fill the vacuum, especially if governments subsidize the research and development of those alternatives. As a recent report by the Suzuki Foundation pointed out, there is every reason to believe that a greener economy will provide just as many jobs as the petro-economy currently does. Federal and provincial governments ignored the report’s recommendations.

The third claim is both the most persistent and the most pernicious. Here there is grudging agreement that the oil economy is less than perfect, but that Canadians should not worry about this because our contribution to the flow of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is very small (just 2%). Moreover, if we were to cease production of oil we would put ourselves at a comparative economic disadvantage.

We could not ask for a better illustration of the tragedy of the commons. The atmospheric commons is being ruined precisely because every national player, regardless of the size of its GHG flow, is adopting this narrow stance. It is crucial for us to recognize the profound irrationality underlying this apparently rational position.

According to our best science, the only way to avoid climate catastrophe is to limit 21st-century temperature rise to 2 degrees above the pre-industrial baseline. To achieve this, however, global emissions must first peak and thereafter be reduced incrementally every year. The longer we take to peak, the faster we must reduce. So, for example, if we peak in 2015, we must reduce at 3.6% per year thereafter, but if we wait until 2020 we must reduce at a whopping 6% per year (and an unthinkable 12% for a peak of 2025). These targets, even the earliest one, cannot be met unless everyone is on board.

In other words, minimizing future harms from climate change is going to require an unprecedented level of international co-operation on the task of de-carbonizing the global economy, but current Canadian policy directly contradicts this goal. Evidently we want the world to be hooked on oil for as long as we can make the stuff last. Think of this from the standpoint of members of future generations. If we do not change course immediately, they will almost certainly despise us for negligently ushering into existence a world of profound social chaos, where full civilizational collapse is a looming possibility. If that sounds implausible, consult Jared Diamond’s Collapse or Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. These writers make it clear that such collapses—many of which have been the product of anthropogenic environmental stresses—can occur even when a civilization is, like ours, at the acme of its technological sophistication and material wealth.

When not scrambling just to survive, the inhabitants of this imagined future world will—quite rightly—condemn us as moral criminals. If that is not how we want ourselves described by them, then we need to change our current energy policy and reject the bogus ethical oil rhetoric that supports it.

Byron Williston, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Wilfred Laurier University. His latest book is Environmental Ethics for Canadians.


  1. Although the burning of fuel emits harmful gases like carbon-di-oxide into the atmosphere, the emission needs to be controlled. It may increase the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere but it will also benefit agriculture. However, the precious oil reserves fuel the economy and growth of a country, resulting in the growth and development of the country as well.

  2. Byron Williston · · Reply

    Thanks for the comments from Rob and Jody. To Rob’s points I would say the following. First, I was not making any claims about the connection between tar sands development and Canadian consumption of oil. The point had to do with Canada seeking to perpetuate a global system of fossil fuel consumption way beyond the point at which the latter ceases to be sustainable. As a recent report from the EPA show, Keystone XL alone would in fact increase tar sands production significantly. This is reason enough to refuse the pipeline. Second, the best way to reduce overall emissions is surely to curb production by whatever means are ready to hand. Carbon taxes are a good way to do this, but so is setting about to ensure that certain resources simply cannot make it to market because citizens decide they don’t want a pipeline, for instance. What is “circuitous” about this approach as opposed to its being a legitimate expression of the democratic will? Finally, I don’t buy your claim that we can separate production from emissions. If production goes up, so will emissions, barring the widespread development and deployment of so-far unproven carbon sequestration technology.

    Jody’s claim about the role of consumers in all of this is well taken but I don’t see that it matters since I was not claiming that producers are solely to blame for the problem (obviously they are not). Rick George’s book (Sun Rise) is good, but like a lot of oil people (John Hofmeister, the ex-Shell dude is another example), he appears to be largely ignorant of climate science and thus totally deluded about the gravity of the crisis we face. This is the only way he can get away with saying that we absolutely must exploit whatever fossil fuel resources we can find for the foreseeable future because energy demand is rising inexorably (Hofmeister says the same thing: surprise!). Even the International Energy Agency (a conservative organization) is now arguing that, although such demand is indeed rising fast, to meet it with fossil fuels is not an option if we wish to avoid climate catastrophe. This is not about telling the developing world that they cannot develop (as though we could do that anyway) but about people everywhere realizing that the path we are on is recklessly stupid. If a substantial portion of the money and brain power currently spent on figuring out how to get oil from shale (or sand), or methane from deep-water clathrates or liquid fuel from coal (etc., etc.) were instead deployed to bring renewables to mass market, we’d be out of this mess in a jiffy. But that, of course, would require political leadership, something in desperately short supply these days.

  3. Jody Sanderson · · Reply

    I would recommend reading Sun Rise by former Suncor CEO Rick George. I would also suggest that it is not the oil producers that want the world hooked on oil, it is the consumers. Who do you think will tell China or India that their desire for the same lifestyle we have enjoyed for decades, should not be available for them?

  4. Thanks for this piece, Byron. The first argument that you address seems like a bad one, as you say. You could also point out that the U.S. is an even larger producer of oil than Canada and is also a democracy.

    I disagree with your analysis of the second argument — I think we probably would lose jobs if we don’t approve the pipeline. But just how many is a complicated economics matter, and moreover, proving that we would lose some jobs doesn’t settle the moral question.

    It is your treatment of the third argument with which I take issue. I agree with you that that this argument is flawed. But I’m not sure a response to it belongs in this piece. This argument states that reducing emissions is good in theory, but that, unless everyone agrees to do this, there is little point in small contributors to overall emissions (like Canada) putting themselves at a disadvantage in order to reduce emissions. This argument may be morally flawed, but it is an argument against reducing emissions, and has little do with reducing production.

    It is not clear to me that preventing the construction of the Keystone pipeline will have a major impact on the amount of oil consumed by, and thus carbon emissions produced by, Canadians. Increased domestic production is likely only to lead to a very modest reduction in oil prices, especially since gasoline is already taxed at such a high rate in Canada (if my understanding of the economics here is correct). Consequently there is no direct relationship between the amount of oil we produce and the amount of oil we consume. Moreover, even if it could be shown that domestic oil production leads to a direct decrease in the cost of domestic oil, and we agreed that total emissions should be reduced, this still wouldn’t argue against increased domestic production. Likely, if we do have a moral duty to reduce emissions, then there are more straightforward ways of achieving this goal than curbing production (and thus increasing overall costs) a little bit. We could allow increased production and just raise consumption taxes. We could impose a cap and trade system, or just charge large GHG emitters some amount that would offset the negative externalities. These seem to address the problem directly, not in the circuitous route implicit in just making it difficult to produce oil by preventing the construction of a pipeline. It seems like if the problem is with emissions, then we should focus on reducing emissions, not on handicapping production.

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