Which Oil is the More Ethical Oil?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….

Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.

Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.

So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.

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

15 comments so far

  1. Jonathan on

    Haven’t read the article yet but I find the need to distinguish between unethical (or at least morally questionable) products and products of unethical companies. In some cases there are moral problems with the products themselves, which is apparently the case with the tar sands oil (the environmental concern). In other cases, however, there may not be anything morally problematic about the product itself but rather that the product is produced/sold by a company/country that represents morally problematic values. Still other cases may lie somewhere in between – i.e., countries that use their oil profits to fund morally problematic endeavours.

    Not entirely sure why this is relevant but my intuition tells me it is. Perhaps it’s just a response to the use of shorthands, like “ethical/unethical oil”.

  2. martina on

    sometimes to be ethical doesn’t mean to act right, but simply to do the best choice in a situation where right and wrong don’t exist. So maybe who labelled Canadian oil as an “ethical” oil was just thinking in an utilitarian way (“the biggest amount of good for the biggest amount of people”)…

  3. David Wilson on

    The oil is sold by the same corporations, whether from Saudi Arabia, Alberta, or the US. If we stopped importing from Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, the Shell’s and the Exxon’s would be the big losers.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      That’s partly true. But Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country — the oil companies aren’t the only ones making money, here.

  4. anon on

    I meant to leave a long and detailed comment, but it would appear aggrandizing, so I scrapped it. But it seems to me that the fraser institute piece is unbearably trite, to the point to being disingenuous.


    a)Canada doesn’t really “do” peacekeeping, anymore. So why make the narrative about peacekeeping? Why not say “nation-building”? Why be evasive?

    b)The image of a Bedu in a Keffiyeh in front of an oil well as “funds terrorism” is basically racist. They probably didn’t mean for it to be, but it is.

    c)For an article about “ethical oil”, there actually aren’t any ethical or moral arguments, other than “we need to stand up to bad countries”.

    d)For an article about “ethical” oil, there is actually far more discussion of national interest. Specifically, American national interest…when a Canadian realist would presumably deem American national interest to be a specifically unethical criteria upon which to deliberate, as it would distract from the ethical responsibility to the Canadian national interest.

    e)The Fraser Institute refuses to adhere to conflict-of-interest disclosure best-practices, including naming donor firms, potential conflicts held by its authors and directors, and naming donor foundations (which are reported to include the Koch Foundation, which has oil and refining interests).

  5. Sandra Qvist on

    I’m just curious, but is your friend Andrew Crane the same Andrew Crane, which together with Dirk Matten have written the book “Business Ethics: Managing corporate citizenship and sustainability in the age of globalization”?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Yes, that’s him.

      • Sandra Qvist on

        Ok cool! I’m studying business ethics at the moment and that book is our course book, it’s very well written and very rewarding! Greet him from Sandra in Sweden and tell him that the book is widely used! 🙂

  6. Andi on

    Daily we use 87 Mio. barrel oil. Surveys found out that there are 1255 billion barrel oil available all over the world. This means that within 40 years we will run out of oil. How can we therefore talk about ethical oil?!
    Doesn’t go ethics along with sustainability? Doesn’t it mean that we should try to meet our present goals while doesn’t prevent future generations to meet their own goals?
    I think there can’t be an ethical oil producing country. Every oil producer only focuses on making money as long as there is oil available. Maybe that’s the reason why there aren’t alternative energies at the moment. The oil companies are too powerful and can prevent other companies from inventing alternative energies.

    I think companies/countries shouldn’t do marketing with ethical oil but try to make their companies more sustainable and do marketing with this part of business ethics!
    Only listing failures of other countries does not mean that all not listed countries act ethical. Doesn’t has every country a skeleton in its closet?!

    • Chris MacDonald on


      It can’t be unethical to produce a product that millions of people — and entire economies — rely on. If everyone stopped producing oil tomorrow, the result would be economic collapse and famine.


      • Andi on

        I didn’t say that we should stop using oil in our daily life from one day to the other. I just think that people should focus on alternative energies and companies should try to work harder on the invention of alternatives to oil (environmental sustainability).
        Oil is needed for so many products, but what do we do if we run out of oil?!

        From a utilitarianism point of view I totally agree with you. The oil is needed by many people and by “producing” or better flowing oil, the companies meet the needs of the society.
        But if we think about the “rule utilitarianism” which looks at classes of actions and asks whether the underlying principle of an action produces more pleasure than pain for the society in the long run, then we maybe think that there can’t be an ethical oil “production”. The society is harmed by flowing too much oil in the long run – namely future generations are harmed when they won’t be able to meet their own needs because there is no oil left on the planet. The underlying principle of companies is probably to make profit and not to act environmentally sustainable.

        In my opinion there can’t be an ethical oil production. Companies could only prevent being unethically. Therefore the oil production is a grey zone between ethical and unethical behavior.
        As you see, I believe that ethical or unethical behavior are no absolutes; they are more relatives.

  7. Louise on

    Why are we looking more into the countries producing the oil and not the companies/ people behind it? Doesn’t the ethical perspective of the oil cases arise from action as; how the employees are treated and what the company does to be more ethical? Just because a country isn´t treating people in their society right, does it mean that the oil company set up is doing the same.
    I’m not defending the oil companies in any way but sometimes it is more into the whole story if you know what I mean. Though by the list that you have put up Chris I can see why Canadian oil would be the more ethical one.


    • Chris MacDonald on


      I think the point the “ethical oil” people are trying to make is that the Saudi government gets most of its funding from oil. So Saudi oil definitely props up a government that has a poor human-rights record.


  8. Harry Matthews on

    I think the ethical oils are the oils that can be produced from natural ingredients like from plants or that can be manufactured in a clean process like biofuels from algae labs. In this case, oil rigs with flare pilot ignitors will no longer be required in oil fields.

  9. gas flare stack on

    I agree with you harry that ethical oils came from a variant amount of natural ingredients like plants and other living things that can be created into products such as bio-fuel and stuff.

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