The ethics of oil extraction

Originally published in Embassy News.

There has been a lot of noise lately about how best to transport oil. Five trains carrying crude oil and other petroleum products have derailed in Canada and the United States in the last month. At least three of the spills led to serious fires that burned for days. At the same time, the pros and cons of pipeline development are being hotly contested.

It’s striking how much of the debate around Canada’s oil industry is focused on transportation when there is clearly a much larger question: Should we be extracting oil in the first place?

For some, this is simply a question of economics, but it is much more. Our economy, ecology, and society are all wrapped up in one another. If the health of one relies on the destruction of the other, then we have failed. Climate change is an urgent concern that requires a holistic response. It requires that we think carefully about the ethics of the energy economy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have clearly stated that in order to limit global warming to two degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold for “dangerous climate change”—most known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground. According to a recent study published in Nature, this means 75 per cent of Canada’s known oil reserves and 24 per cent of gas reserves must not be burned.

Ottawa has taken a few very small steps towards our 2009 Copenhagen climate commitment. They’ve introduced some modest fuel efficiency regulations in the transportation sector and cut the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance, one of the major (though not the most valuable) subsidies to the oil sands. But most of Canada’s emission reductions have come from the provinces. And the Federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has said that current federal measures are vastly inadequate.

While parts of Canada and the US experienced record-breaking cold this winter, the global trend is rising temperatures (2014 was the warmest year on record) and increasingly volatile weather systems. Artic glaciers are melting and the Inuit in Canada’s north face growing threats to their livelihoods and traditional lifestyles. In the Global South, and indeed in places throughout the world, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires are becoming increasingly commonplace. Small island states, such as Vanuatu, are at risk of disappearing altogether due to rising sea levels.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it very simply, “While global emissions have risen unchecked, real-world impacts have taken hold in earnest.”

The fossil fuel industry, and indeed our federal government, tells us that putting a price on carbon, limiting oil sands expansion, preventing pipeline development, or even regulating emissions would be “crazy.” The not-so-subtle subtext is that without oil, our economy is sunk. Not so.

Research published in a 2014 report by Clean Energy Canada states that the green energy sector employs 23,700 people compared to the 22,340 in jobs related to the oil sands. (This without taking into account jobs recently shed in the oil patch). And, according to Blue Green Canada, investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, or public transit create six to eight more jobs than equivalent investments in fossil fuels.

The CEC report also points to a 93 per cent increase of energy-producing capacity of renewables since 2009, suggesting greater feasibility of a swift transition to green energy. At the same time, data from the International Renewable Energy Agency and Deutche Bank show the cost of electricity generated from solar, hydro, geothermal, and on-shore wind is competitive with that produced by fossil fuels.

A strong economy and a healthy environment does not have to be an “either-or” proposition. What is at odds is the wealth of the fossil fuel industry and the well-being of the earth. But as Archbishop Tutu says, “nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

It is time that we shift our collective focus from how the oil and gas industry expands, and look instead at how it should contract. Ultimately, we must explore how we transition to clean energy sources, invest in sustainable energy and infrastructure and move towards the ethical imperative of keeping fossil fuels underground.

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