Unethicull Oil: What Alberta's Wolf Cull Plan Tells Us About Canada's Oil Addiction

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DeSmog recently sent a team to the tar sands region of Alberta to investigate the proposed government plan to systematically kill off the province’s wild wolf population in a supposed effort to recover dwindling caribou herds. The proposed cull has been widely criticized internationally for placing the interests of industry above the interests of the public and the public’s stake in the responsible management of Alberta’s resources, environment and wildlife.

Along our journey we discovered the proposed wolf cull bears a striking resemblance to another ploy designed to protect the interests of the oil and gas industry: the “ethical oil” campaign. 

Here are 3 basic points of resemblance between the two:
 

1. The Bait-and-Switch: Both the wolf cull and the ethical oil campaign share a deceptive bait-and-switch strategy.

The Wolves:

For the wolf cull the bait comes in the form of the euphemistic catchall term, ‘wildlife management,’ used to discuss caribou recovery in Alberta. Sure, most people want caribou to survive and will favor a wildlife management plan designed to save the province’s caribou. Nobody likes wild species going extinct, right?

And the switch: in order for this management plan to work, we’ll have to sacrifice another of the province’s wild species, the wolf. And, as a hidden cost, we’ll be choosing to ignore more effective alternative remedies to caribou declines, like habitat protection, for instance.

The Oil:
 
DeSmogBlog’s Emma Pullman has done a great job working through the bait-and-switch tactics of the ethical oil campaign. The bait here is clear: access to an ‘ethical’ fuel source, one that is produced in a responsible, democratic context where women enjoy the full gambit of human rights.
 
The switch, however, is enormous: it comes at the cost of one’s support for the dirtiest fuel source on the planet. Unconventional oil from Canada’s tar sands is the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in Canada, is a tremendous source of industrial pollutants to the nation’s pristine air and water, and is a major contributor to the earth’s warming climate – a problem that has direct consequences for the world’s poorest and most disenfranchised peoples
 
 
2. Oversimplification: The bait and switch tactic relies on more than clever phrasing, however, and rests heavily on the oversimplification of complex problems.
 
The Wolves:
The government, on both the provincial and federal level, has struggled with the issue of caribou declines in Alberta for decades. It is widely accepted that caribou declines in Alberta are directly associated with increases in industrial development. Across large portions of Alberta, conventional oil and gas activity encroaches on wildlife habitat, and now unconventional oil and gas extraction is accelerating rapidly. The discovery of these resources requires seriously destructive exploration techniques, such as the creation of ‘seismic lines,’ long series of lines that crisscross thousands of kilometers of forest. Once clear-cut, surveyors use explosives along these lines in their search for new fuel deposits.
 
This exploration strategy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unconventional fossil fuel production and the disappearance of Alberta’s once vast caribou herds. After deposits are located, roads, pipelines and well pads are built to service the coming years of industrial activity. These kinds of activities are severely disruptive to the existence of caribou, a naturally skittish animal.
 
When it comes to caribou declines, scientists have placed the blame squarely on the expansion of these destructive industrial activities. Yet the government, relying on the public’s lack of knowledge of these things, has shifted that blame to the wolf, a natural caribou predator. The government stands by this scapegoat strategy, even though international scientists have proven wolves are not to blame and that caribou only make up a small fraction – 10 percent – of the wolf’s diet.
 
The Oil: 
In a similar way the ethical oil campaign relies heavily on the oversimplification of oil production and oil politics. This campaign sets up ‘conflict oil’ as a classic straw-man target. According to the argument ‘conflict oil’ from unstable nations like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela fuels the corrupt internal politics of these despotic regimes, where basic human rights are not protected. In comparison, Canada’s ‘ethical oil’ is produced in a responsible, democratic nation, where the rights of the people and the environment are given high priority.
 
The oversimplified comparison of conflict oil and ethical oil is one that ignores all the ways in which tar sands oil has corrupted the politics, policies and processes that constitute Canada’s so-called ‘ethical’ character. The conflict oil ‘straw-man’ also overlooks the relationship between conflict regimes and oil production.

Ezra Levant, creator of the Ethical Oil Institute, likes to suggest that ‘God gave most of the oil to the world’s bastards‘ suggesting they were corrupted regimes before the discovery of oil. But as we’re learning first-hand in Canada, maybe it’s the oil that corrupts and not the other way around.

 
Levant also skirts around the fact that the same multinationals  – Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, to name a few – producing oil in Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are producing oil in Alberta. The ‘ethical’ oil tag line also clouds over Canada’s role in quashing important international environmental treaties to keep oil production running at an all-time high – to sell to conflict regimes like China.
 
3. Misinformation: Finally, both the bait-and-switch strategy and the oversimplification of these issues relies on one final element – misinformation. 
 
The Wolves:
The very idea that wolves can be held responsible for caribou declines, or that reducing wolf populations is enough to help the caribou recover, is based on misinformation, plain and simple. In 2005, when the province’s then caribou recovery team put out a document recommending the government place a temporary moratorium on land acquisitions in areas where the caribou were in danger of local extinction – the Alberta government blatantly refused the recommendation (pdf pg 3) and promptly disbanded the team.
 
Since then, with the industry-laden Alberta Caribou Committee in place, recovery strategies have put an un-due emphasis on ‘changing predator prey relations,’ in a corrupted effort to dumb down knowledge of tar sands’ environmental impact. This industry-guided misinformation campaign has not only provoked the demise of the caribou but now threatens to wipe wolves clean from the province. All of this is done to protect the reputation of the tar sands and the credibility of the government’s commitment to its expansion.
The Oil:
The most basic misinformation component of the ethical oil campaign is its so-called ‘grassroots’ foundation. DeSmog’s Emma Pullman did excellent work exposing the campaign’s ties to the Harper government and conservative political strategists, showing ‘ethical oil’ is not grassroots but astroturf. The Harper government has the highest stakes in the ethical oil sands game – pulling in more annual profit from the tar sands than even Alberta. 
 
Secondly, the ethical oil campaign’s three basic lines of argument – that the Canadian government is ethical in its treatment of its people, its women and its environment – are all fabulously unfounded claims. Canada has never regressed as much on these three fronts as it has since the Harper government came into power. 
 
That we may be better in some of these areas than, say, the Saudis, is up for further discussion: some might suggest that the Harper government’s policies regarding independent science, freedom of speech or women’s rights in Canada have been down right oppressive, dictator-style. So to think that Canada might be patting itself on the back for being better than the world’s corrupt petrocracies seems to be little cause for celebration.
 
Having someone tell you you’re the lesser of two really undesirable evils hardly warrants an ‘ethical’ badge. If anything, the ethical oil campaign should be seen as a Canadian challenge. If we really want to call ourselves ethical, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.
 
Image Credit: Neven Bjelić
 

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