Photo: It will take more than rebranding to make tar sands oil

Alberta tar sands contribute to about five per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions (Credit: Pete Williamson via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Ripping a page — or the cover — from fellow Conservative and former tobacco industry lobbyist Ezra Levant's book, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his new environment minister, Peter Kent, have taken to referring to the product of the Alberta tar sands as ethical oil.

The Prime Minister and Mr. Levant go back a long way. It was Mr. Levant who reluctantly stepped aside as the Alliance candidate in Calgary Southwest so that Mr. Harper could run in a by-election there in 2002. But the "ethical oil" argument they promote has holes as big as the ones in the ground around Fort McMurray.

To start, the logic is faulty. Just because a country or society is considered "ethical" does not mean everything it produces or exports is ethical. If we are going to delve into the ethics of the issue, we must look at the ethics of energy overall. That means considering the impacts of various energy systems on people and the environment.

Here, the science is troubling. It shows that the Alberta tar sands contribute to about five per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions and are the country's fastest growing source of emissions. To date, they have disturbed 600 square kilometres of boreal forest with little or no chance of true reclamation, use enormous amounts of water, and pollute the surrounding air and water.

This past summer, an independent, peer-reviewed scientific study showed that toxic byproducts from the tar sands extraction industry are poisoning the Athabasca River, putting downstream First Nations communities and the fish they eat at risk. Health studies show these First Nations communities already have elevated rare cancers associated with exposure to such toxins.

If this is the most "ethical" source of oil we can find, we need to ask other questions about the moral purity of our intensively processed bitumen. For example, if we sell the oil to countries with poor human-rights records, like China, does that affect the product's "ethical" nature? And how "ethical" are the companies operating in the tar sands; for example, Exxon Mobil, well-known sponsor of climate-change disinformation campaigns; BP, responsible for last year's massive oily disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; or PetroChina? There's also the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on our children and grandchildren, which to me is an intergenerational crime.

In this light, wouldn't energy from technologies or sources that limit the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and that have a minimal environmental and health impacts be far more ethical than fossil fuels? And, from an economic perspective, wouldn't these more ethical technologies or fuel sources be doubly attractive to foreign buyers if they came from an "ethical" country like Canada?

As award-winning Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk has argued, with proper development, the tar sands could help provide Canada with the oil and money we need to shift to a low-carbon economy. But major changes are needed. Environmental regulation and monitoring must be strengthened. Pollution and related health problems must be addressed. More of the revenue must go to Canadians rather than fossil fuel companies. And a national carbon tax would help us move from oil to less-polluting energy sources.

The problem is, no matter what Ezra Levant and his friends in government say, oil has never been about "ethics". It has always been about money. Those who argue the case for "ethical oil" should work to ensure that our energy needs are met in a truly ethical way, now and into the future. In the end, the only truly ethical solution is to phase out oil. The black eye that tar sands oil is sporting can't be remedied with meaningless phrases such as "ethical oil".

To be seen as truly ethical when it comes to energy policy, Canada must slow down tar sands development, clean up the environmental problems, implement a national carbon tax, improve the regulatory and monitoring regime, and make sure that Canadians are reaping their fair share of the revenues. We must also start taking clean energy seriously. Rather than subsidizing the tar sands and all the fossil fuel industry through massive tax breaks, we should be investing in energy technologies that will benefit our health, economy, and climate.

It might also help if Canada's environment minister spent more time protecting the environment rather than appeasing the oil industry and its apologists.

February 3, 2011

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Dec 01, 2016
11:01 AM

I really appreciate Dr. Suzuki’s untiring efforts to keep our environment free from oil pollution. In view of the latest approval of our PM of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline project, which will bring bitumen (diluted) in substantial quantities through our west coast waterways, the probabilities of accidental oil leakages/spills in our sea waters are a real concern.

There is a need to develop reliable and rapid monitoring system for trace amounts of oil in seawater so that emergency remediation measures could be initiated as quickly as possible. The key to such a system could be the development of a rapid (seconds/minutes) and specific kit, based on physico-chemical and/or biological parameters for trace amounts of lower n-alkanes/aromatic and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. If the kit was reliable, economically viable and installed at several remote monitoring sites along the waterways, which would convey the alarm signals to a central monitoring office. I am positive, substantial funding at the provincial and corporate levels could be possible for such a research proposal.

Suzuki foundation is competent and qualified institution to deserve such grants to: a) organize an open seminar in Vancouver on methods for rapid monitoring of oil leaks in the marine environment. b) deveop and execute a research project on the appplication of physico-chemical and biological methods to rapidly monitor accidental leaks of Bitumen in our Western waterways.

Nov 23, 2016
12:27 PM

What can I do personally to send a message to our government to shut down the tar sands as soon as possible—-preferably today?I am 70 years old and have severe arthritis,so it has to be something that I can do from my home.How do I send the message to every level of Canadian government to shut this down now.I have adult children and grandchildren and this is for them.

Oct 06, 2016
6:04 PM

The ozone depletion is stabilizing in the antarctic as cfc concentration decreases over the next 75 years the size of that hole might not increase much past the antarctic continent, although last year was still one of the largest hole’s on record. But the hole in the arctic is now growing and guess the cause? Greenhouse gases cause heat to be trapped closer to the surface, cooling the upper atmosphere. The estimated areas exposed to direct UV radiation within 20 years include most of Canada, Russia and Europe. The hole is susceptible to wind patterns and is expected to cross further south. This effect is not reversible due to the CFC’s already in the atmosphere and only exacerbated by continued rising levels of green house gases…


Oct 04, 2016
4:02 PM

“It might also help if Canada’s environment minister spent more time protecting the environment rather than appeasing the oil industry and its apologists.”


Aug 29, 2015
9:09 AM

I think the point being made with the tag-line “ethical oil” is directed more towards the comparitive practices involved in developing each nations resources. Questioning the entire process of natural resource extraction is not comparing apples to apples. If we, as Canadians, are going to compete on the global market then we need to show the world that our practices compare favourably to other nations with less regulation, reporting and compliance. There is a tonne of information circulating through the media showing that Alberta is dirty and out of control yet very little dedicated to show what we do here that is eclipsing the practices of other petroleum producing nations. Albertans are very aware that the Oilsands are a growing industry and look to the provincial and federal government to institute strict policy to protect the environment and the people. If studies quoted in this article are true then where is the follow up to identify the individual or entity causing the polution? Articles like this one try to make it appear as though all operators in the area can be painted with one brush. If you have spent any time in the industry you will see that each site will have its’ own specific rules and regulations to follow over and above those of industry and government. So if you can identify a polluter, please identify them so govenment can force a clean up. Lets have balance and understanding in our reporting. Not everything that is said by either side on this issue is 100% accurate. So instead of fighting with one another, let’s get together on the facts and work towards solutions that grow the industry in a more efficient and clean manner.

Aug 26, 2015
1:01 PM

There is no tar in the oil sands Mr. Suzuki. You must be ignorant or are purposely trying to mislead people. Fossil fuels are a wonderful thing that have freed us and the animals out of having to do hard physical labour. The real issue is the abuse of fossil fuels. The automobile manufacturers continue to produce vehicles with over 500 HP and cruise ships use gallons of fuel just to move one meter forward. There are over 5000 aircraft flying at any given time in the air. The use of transport trucks instead of rail is another abuse. Fossil fuels could last millennia if we used then correctly. The curtailment of the abuse of fossil fuels is the direction we need to be going, not the end of their use. If the oil sands was the only producer of oil on planet earth, the planet could easily deal with any pollution or CO2 it produced. Stopping the production of oil there will make little difference to the earths total load. You may want to use the oi lsands as your whipping boy and Canadians as your example of what the world needs to do but that is unfair to us all. Mr. Levant is only speaking the truth and because he opposes your doom and gloom doomsday cult like ideology, you are trying to silence him.

Aug 21, 2015
4:04 PM

As a 4th generation Albertan concerned with my kids and grand kids here, all I can say is Dr Suzuki is being ‘extremely polite’ in this article. The ‘tar sands’ have really been a toy of big business and a successive stream of incompetent governments in this province to make enormous profits, yet our government here ran deficits when oil was a hundred bucks a barrel. Oil here has not at all helped the average Albertan, and I’m glad to see the price drop down to 40 dollars a barrel such that these Houston / China based companies pack their bags and move on… and just may be our government will wake up and become a bit more frugal with their totally out of control spending habits.

These oil company (thugs) care little of the damage they’ve done out here, and as long as we have corrupt governments in power that will turn a blind eye, it will continue.

As to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the tar sands, I honestly don’t think anyone really knows… personally I’ve been keeping a close watch on the ‘Cloud’ project going on at CERN

Jun 06, 2015
10:03 PM

This article strives to convince others to steer clear of Ezra’s book! So maybe we should all read it! Actually I highly recommend it!

Suzuki’s arguments in this article, like so many others related to pipelines and petroleum, fall short IMHO and hence fail to convince.

But then again I have more than 35 years experience in the energy industries including nuclear, hydro, solar and petroleum….. as well as extraction of natural gas from landfill sites to generate electricity under CanMet for the National Research Council.

Truth is that there is always one of more environmental group opposed to all energy solutions including wind….. I guess they don’t really want us to have a solution because that would put them out of business!

Nov 24, 2014
12:22 PM

I would like to see a protest such as the one down in the U.S. e.g. the million person march with everyone meeting at the tar sands or ottawa and occupy, occupy , occupy and if we all have to we should go on hunger strikes, create giant signs etc. we are past the point for half measures, its time for the anti-oil -carbon revolution. jobs

Mar 31, 2014
11:37 AM

To readers of posted comments on this article: please note the number of posters who are trying to discredit the ideas presented by Mr. Suzuki. Do you think that these posters might be paid by the oil industry to post in social media to destroy the positive impact that Mr. Suzuki is having on public opinion?

GREED AXIOM: Greed is stupid

Mar 29, 2014
7:38 AM

U.S. would spend billions and risk soldiers’ lives to stabilize oil sources abroad — then reject a piece of vital infrastructure at home. Why not just approve the keystone pipeline. So, its okay to spend billions and risk soldiers lives to get oil, but its not okay to build a pipeline. Canada will find other ways to transport oil, if US doesn’t approve keystone. US can use the oil resources to bargain with other first world countries. US doesn’t want to be a weak country who depends on several places for oil. Canada will no way harm US in any way. We have been best allies for a long time.

Mar 19, 2014
6:40 AM

stop killing nature. DS rules.

Mar 12, 2014
9:41 AM

There is so much that is incorrect in your rant. I won’t take the time to address most. I will ask, why not go after the larger problems like USA coal burning energy plants? They contribute so much more carbon to the atmosphere than the entire “OIL SANDS”. I did not question carbons contribution to climate change until I saw your performance on ABC (Australia TV). Your inability to address a number of valid questions resulted in further research on my part. I no longer blindly accept your correlation between carbon and climate change. I continue to search for the truth. I am tired of reading ‘just accept it’ in place of an understandable explanation.

Mar 02, 2014
7:32 AM

mr. Suzuki why not run for prime minister. you’ve got the wisdom, the vision and morals and are not a total slave to political correctness. on second thought stay where you are those assets could work against you. i could not believe that you were branded as ‘anti-sentiment’ by the immigration minister simply because you stated that canada may be catering to and giving in to foreign corportate interests which is having a negative environmental impact on our land and people. there is a label for anyone who does not totally agree with issues the governement is playing to. for example immigration, development the middle east you name it. The health of our people and land should be paramount

Feb 19, 2014
3:13 PM

It will not be possible for me to take these environmental activists seriously till 1) they stop using this silly uninformed term “Tar sands”, 2) stop using airplanes, cars, and anything that burns fossil fuels and takes them around the world on their speaking engagements, 3) stop using natural gas/oil for heating their several thousand square feet mansions, 4) stop using electricity powered by coal-fired plants, 5) the size of their own carbon footprint becomes less than the size of their mouth, 6) disclose contributions to their organizations from US and international lobbying organizations who are working on their own self interest, 7) disclose the global level of poverty, suffering and deaths that they project if oil goes to $200 a barrel and stays there as a result of shutting down oil sands and/or turmoil in the Middle East, 8) develop the nerve to criticize the two heaviest polluters in the world i.e. China and US but wait that is not more important than 5% of the GHG of the 2% of the world!! Meanwhile lets bite the hand that feeds our $8 million mansion somewhere in BC!!!!

Feb 14, 2014
4:24 PM

Mr Suzuki, isn’ it just a little embarrassing the way the mainstream media covers for you?

Feb 08, 2014
9:57 AM

It has to be stopped and now not later on. Explain it to me!!!!!!!!!!!! This is environmently a disaster just waiting to happen. Happen it is going to, just take into account what Steven Harper did before this got going. He was an Alberta polition and he needs to be for our country not just Alberta politics. Take where they are going to run this oil route to and by that I mean China. We have enough oil to oil up our country, not China.

Feb 08, 2014
8:39 AM

What bothers me so much in this whole debate is that money trumps people’s health and that this conservative government regularly muzzles those who speak in defence of people. Too much power resides in the PMO and we need to galvanize regular Canadians on the damage it is doing to Canada.

Jan 31, 2014
1:30 PM

Why do you call them “Tar Sands” there is no Tar in the Oil Sands, use the proper words, it just makes you look stupid! It just shows that you’d rather use a word that paints a more terrible picture of the OIL SANDS to get people on your side who are not educated on the issue! Plus as someone who has gone to school and studied oil and gas regulations in Canada, i’ll tell you that Alberta has some of the best regulations in the world when it comes to developing natural resources, other Canadian provinces are looking at Alberta as a model for their regulations, also not to mention that Alberta is the leader for renewable energy projects and production in all of Canada! for some reason that doesn’t get any publicity!

Jan 17, 2014
7:02 AM

I am just saddened with the current state of affairs, and how more people are not aware of the devastation and consequences pertaining to the industry that gains the greater rewards of tar sands…future generations are at stake, in regards to greenhouse gas emissions,,,,one day, we will have depleted these resources and destroyed our planet, as it is already evident through climate change. It is sad that people most often live in the moment, and for greed, rather than looking across generations, and what will our children,and our childrens’ children “world” look like,,,,I fear that because most people are not like David Suzuki, and only serve self interests, and the comforts that only money and power could bring.

May 22, 2013
12:47 PM

This artical has made itself very useful for my socail studies project about how contemporary issues challange the principles of liberalism, except I dont agree with the concept that we should really care bout our carbon emmissions as much as we do because compared to volcanic activity and other natural occurances. The economic outcome is to great for our country and we should defiatley invest as much of our research into the oil sands as we possibly can.

Apr 23, 2013
5:17 AM

If they spent some of the money they are giving the oil companies to help them out in the research and production in some other areas of green energy we will all be better for it. I feel that between the Canadian government and the united states government we are already aware of alternative ways such as solar power and green algae fuels. Our government are just to stubborn to invest in these things because there is not enough awareness. if people started using alternative sources of energy that are available to us now such as solar power there would be a higher demand for them, in turn creating a new job force in the production of products that would be a cleaner alternative. I took my son to watch the new movie revolution last night which was an eye opener for my son who is fifteen. his answer was very simple why aren’t we trying harder. Get children educated in the issues we are having afterall they are the generation that is going to make the biggest difference and saving their own future.

Mar 30, 2013
12:14 PM

Saint Suzuki, what you always ignore is that in our world the amount of oil that will be used will not change for a very long time. That is one of the main points this book tries to convey. Would you rather support our economy and support the development of the oil sands or would you rather cripple a very important section of our economy and support oil from dictatorships like Venezuela or Saudi Arabia? Buying unethical oil would be supporting multiple human rights violations in countries like these, not to mention their oil causes much more carbon emissions than oil sands oil.

“Clean” energy sources like solar and wind power are still unfeasible for our world. They cost far too much to be economically efficient for energy production. Your ideas are economically impractical and would only exist in the utopian world of your imagination. Stop attempting to brainwash the masses with your constant bashing of the “tar” sands. Further development of the oil sands are in the best interests for the people of Canada, because they create much needed jobs that will help Canadians. You and your cult of environmentalists do not want what is best for Canada, you only attempt to fulfill your own twisted ideology. You are against human development and if your teachings would be completely enforced in society it would completely stagnate the advancement of society.

Your propaganda must be stopped.

Mar 23, 2013
5:07 PM

As soon as you are against anything you automatically become a hypocrite,funny how the biggest users of oil (vancouver-over populated polluted city you can the brown haze for miles) protest the loudest.Hey lets shut down albertas oil,all of it, then where does canada get money to run this socialist country?how do you run your cars?power? make oilsands protest signs? and where do the thousands of people work? should they all go on welfare? who pays for that? give us ideas…real alternatives,otherwise stop whining.

Dec 02, 2012
10:14 AM

I am planning to make an art quilt highlighting some of the problems with tar sands oil. I would like to use some of your wonderful photos. I’m happy to give you credit. However, I may be adding material to heighten the effect. Would that be OK with you?

Mar 26, 2011
9:32 AM

I appreciate this balanced view about energy sources and their effects, may they be economic, social, cultural, or developmental. I also appreciate the fact that the “ethics” argument is taken further to a place where it struggles to sustain itself. I’m worried this message is not heard enough, especially at this time when a federal election has been confirmed. As an academic in the health sciences, I’m also confronted with this reality on a regular basis where scientific research, intellect, common sense and ethics are ignored, ridiculed or perverted. Science is not perfect, but it helps a lot.

Suzuki is very diplomatic considering the misinformation circulated around and the damage caused by some of these companies. He doesn’t say we need to scratch oil completely within the year. He says we need to plan and implement a move towards other kinds of energies and revenue from oil could help us achieve that. A similar message is repeated across scientific circles and around the world. If there is, say, an 80% consensus, they might be on to something. Given Suzuki’s expertise, why wouldn’t you expect him to have a cause and defend it? What’s the point of developing expertise if you don’t do anything with it?

At this point in time, given the wealth of knowledge about this issue, it seems that those who are still dubious don’t base their position on fact and reasoning. Rather, they appear to resist the idea of change, they might be worried about the impact of these changes on their quality of life, or their taxes, or perhaps their lifestyle/standard of living, or they don’t really want to know or think about politics at the end of a tiresome workday.

Mar 11, 2011
4:49 PM

So, as a consumer of oil products, located in British Columbia, what is the most ethically responsible choice for buying gasoline? Is there a retailer that sources oil products that is the least harmful of choices? I would hate to switch from an oil sands based company only to learn that my money would instead support some dictator’s death squads in Nigeria or Libya? Please email me directly if you can.

Feb 22, 2011
10:09 AM

I just finished reading Ethical Oil and am horrified by Mr. Levant’s position and his reasoning. I have no idea why he decided to build his case for the oil sands on ethics… unless those against it have framed it that way. Seems like a stupid framework. I read someone remarking, it’s like asking if cats are ethical. Or hotdogs. It is what it is… and we should be asking if it is sustainable, or polluting… anything other than this ridiculous premise that they are ethical.

I can’t believe some of his arguments. Like the dead ducks on the tailing pond. He says that many ducks get eaten in any large city’s Chinatown for dim sum over a 12 month period. Excuse me? Is he seriously comparing the death of wildlife to food production??? And then he actually comments that Syncrude was fined, but companies like KFC, which kill birds daily, are not. What the hell kind of reasoning is this?

This guy is unbelievably cynical. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, he doesn’t believe that climate change is being caused by human activity… and there is the basis for the crap in this book. And it doesn’t help that he relies on articles from the National Post for his references (where he chooses to use them)!

I can’t believe that not ONCE was conservation mentioned. It seems according to Mr. Levant that as humans we have a right to as much oil as we can possibly consume. Yuck yuck yuck. This book is as toxic as the oil sands themselves.

Feb 13, 2011
10:11 PM

and what about the export of asbestos to third world nation ethics??

Feb 13, 2011
7:17 AM

Problem is that you aren’t addressing the argument, no one is contesting the oil being dirty, they’re contesting the human rights of the countries that are producing it.

When it comes to carbon credits or a carbon tax. I think its proponents need to accept that the electorate will never voluntarily vote for a tax increase. What is needed is to charge the oil companies the true cost of producing their product. That means not allowing them to simply have those tailing lakes sit or the cost of contaminating and using clean water.

Feb 11, 2011
1:04 PM

I’m listening to David Suzuki’s current Special Series on CBC Radio on the oil sands. David Suzuki is a valuable Canadian asset and an important international environmental expert. Unfortunately, his journalism skills are opportunistic and biased. David included a segment on sagd oil sands extraction processes. Sagd is a process of extracting bitumen without surface mining. Steam is injected into an oil reservoir, the bitumen is loosened and withdrawn. On the downside, the process uses significant natural gas and water. The upside is an absence of tailings ponds. The point David missed is many sagd companies are not using surface water, he gave the impression they were. Many sagd companies are using water from aquifers. This is a critical point and one that David conveniently omits. I would be interested to listen to his points on water from aquifers. His approach is somewhat Fox News-like. He has such a heavy bias to his causes and his anti-business stance. It’s a shame his knowledge and expertise cannot be showcased in a more objective and balanced way. And it’s a shame he’s so combative. His knowledge is vast and rich, if he applied a little more diplomacy he could literally move mountains. Unfortunately, he just wants a fight and an opportunity to make business leaders look bad.

Feb 09, 2011
3:38 PM

Since IRANIUM, the movie, your arguments against the oil sands are null and void. The choice is to either allow society to function with oil sands or send piles of money to Iran to use to KILL US!!! Please address this issue soon! -Ron Richardson

Feb 09, 2011
3:08 PM

One point that has been left out of the discussion here is that the book also recognizes that the oil produced from Alberta’s sands is not perfect. I certainly think that needs to be captured here.

On another note, I am glad you touched on the point “Rebranding”. How many times has the activist movement rebranded the name for “oil sands”… most recently used is “Tar sands”… or is it “Cancer sands”?… or perhaps “Blood oil”? Although I could name a few more, let me stick with “Tar sands”. “Tar” is a manmade product, while bitumen found in the “tar sands” occurs naturally. It is anything but “tar”. Let us stop misleading people with soundbites in an attempt to score semantic points.

Those who argue that the oil is indeed “Tar/Blood/Cancer” oil should perhaps place more effort into walking inside the tent, sit down and have a beer while discussing real solutions to the issues rationally rather than running up and throwing bricks at it.

Feb 08, 2011
8:11 AM

I’d like to see studies, mainly in the form of risk assessments and monitoring programs, done on a number of concerns. The effects of contaminant mixtures, the uptake of PAHs by plant and animal life downstream/wind of this sands, sediment toxicity, and a massive ambient air monitoring program. What’s downwind in the long range..? The prairies, where we grow food for the country and export. Then tell me they are ethical. They are not going anywhere, so why not hold until a better technology is available if we are so additcted to the oil.

Feb 07, 2011
10:32 AM

I don’t see anything “ethical” about tar sands oil. Aside from its obvious environmental impacts, there’s a tragic health crisis happening in the First Nations community that must be swiftly resolved. I find it appalling that our Minister of Environment is backing the tar sands when he ought to be pushing for stronger regulation and inspection, and most of all, clean alternatives.

Feb 06, 2011
8:38 PM

Who does one vote for in an up coming election? The liberals share the same attitude about the tar sands and oil use.

Feb 04, 2011
7:08 AM

The fact that the word “ethical” is used as an adjective makes me question their motives.

Feb 04, 2011
6:30 AM

Speaking of “rebranding”, David, couldn’t you come up with a new name for “carbon tax”?

I’m convinced that it’s the name that taxpayers can’t swallow, and it’s just the kind of thing that the Harper gang like to scare the population with.

David, I know you can do it!


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