Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

3 comments so far

  1. Andi on

    The environmental destruction on the one hand and the violation of human rights on the other hand. Even if my opinion sound maybe a little bit like an absolutist point of view but I think that both violations are bad. I don’t want to make a decision which one is worse because in every case, Carrolls CSR model is violated. One party violates the environmental level and one party violates the legal or even ethical level.
    But what if we would prefer the oil of one party? The oil price would increase and a lot of people would tend to buy the oil from a cheaper supplier. One goal of sustainability is an economical perspective with the economic framework concept which says that a company should act in a way to maintain the long term functioning of the market. I think that not only companies have this goals but everyone should act in that way. Therefore I would suggest not to prefer one oil supplier and therefore to keep the long term functioning of the market.
    This definitely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put companies under pressure to act in a morally right and sustainable way but in my opinion the question should be a more general one: “Why don’t we try harder to find alternatives to oil?”

  2. Chris on

    Oil is oil, and oil will always be oil and highly coveted, corporations and GV do everything they can to get their hands on the last black pearls. But my question is, when is the limit drawn of what is considered as an unethical investment in oil related stocks/companies. I mean, consider the canadian oil company Black Pearl, that extracts oil from oil sand, with result of huge damages on the environment, are they actually better off ethically compared to oil prospect companies operating in Africa, in areas with high corruption and human oppression?

  3. […] [15] Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison […]

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