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not all is equal. what choice will you make?

The New Republic vs. The Real World

Alykhan June 28, 2011

When The New Republic asked Bill McKibben — an avowed champion of a “carbon-free” world — to write a story on Canada’s oil industry, it surely wasn’t looking to get a balanced analysis. If you think oil production should be stopped completely, as McKibben does, then you aren’t going to make an exception for Canada’s oil, no matter if it happens to be the most ethical form of oil production on the planet.

And on Monday, McKibben came through with the idealistic anti-oilsands polemic TNR’s editors were surely looking for.  He actually calls the development of the oilsands a “crime” because “adding a big new stream of carbon to the atmosphere…would make the already hugely difficult job of phasing out emissions essentially impossible.” In other words: the oilsands are bad because it means more oil supplied to the world, which McKibben doesn’t want.

McKibben isn’t alone, of course, in wishing for a carbon-free future; he’s just far less realistic than most of us when it comes to imagining when we might realize that scenario: he thinks getting the entire world off all fossil fuels—oil, gas, coal—would happen in the next 19 years, if only it weren’t for all that oil coming from Alberta.

But that’s simply not true. Never mind that new, vast discoveries of mineable shale oil and gas are suddenly being found all over the world. Saudi Arabia alone says it has enough oil to keep feeding markets for the next 80 years. Throw in billions more worth of Conflict Oil reserves from Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela, Libya and Russia, and it’s obvious: the world may one day end up weaning itself off fossil fuels, but we won’t actually run out of the stuff in our lifetime.

So, as long as we’re consuming oil, we’re going to buy it from somewhere. There’s loads of Conflict Oil on offer—from countries like the ones listed above, where the proceeds are used to abuse human rights, abuse women, abuse workers, abuse the environment, and sow terror and war—and there’s the billions of barrels of Ethical Oil Canada is offering up as a substitute.

It’s not like Conflict Oil is free of carbon, either. In fact, research from the U.S. government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, for instance, show that Venezuela’s so-called “ultraheavy” Conflict Oil is likely responsible for even higher greenhouse gas emissions than Ethical Oil from northern Alberta. As the world uses up its easy, light oil reserves, heavier oil – whether from Canada, or from other, less upright regimes – is guaranteed to become part of the mix.

Reasonable people realize that Canada’s Ethical Oil isn’t some perfect, carbon-free resource, and we want our oil producers to keep working to reduce the emissions profile from the oilsands (it’s already been pushed down 38% since 1990). But Conflict Oil isn’t a perfect, carbon-free resource, either and while its carbon footprint isn’t even necessarily better than Alberta’s, its ethical footprint is always worse. Sorry, Bill McKibben: Stopping the oilsands won’t stop the world from using oil — it will only eliminate the choice of Ethical Oil over its bloodier alternatives.


Comments (1)

  1. And don’t forget California Heavy, which is a far worse polluter in terms of CO2 emissions than the oil sands. I doubt the liberals at the New Republic would ever do an expose on their liberals friends in California!

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