The Spectacle Blog

In Praise of “Ethical Oil”

By on 9.6.11 | 6:56PM

Last week I met a canny Canadian public relations operator named Alykhan Velshi. A veteran of Washington's conservative think tank world and Ottawa's Conservative government, his current project is EthicalOil.org, a campaign on behalf of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (an expansion of TransCanada's existing Keystone pipeline system) which would run from the tar sands in Alberta -- a source of oil that became technically and economically viable fairly recently -- down to Texas. But this isn't the defensive and anodyne PR campaign you normally see from the oil industry. Instead, billing Canadian oil as "Ethical Oil," the campaign asks whether you'd rather get your gasoline from Canada or Saudi Arabia -- and argues explicitly in terms of human rights:

The environmentalist movement, of course, is against the Keystone XL pipeline, because they're against any exploration of oil. But the given that it's simply unrealistic to think that alternate sources of energy are going to replace fossil fuels any time soon, there is a fundamental moral deficiency in their position. As energy policy scholar Amy Jaffe Myers argues in the current prediction-themed print edition of Foreign Policy, the center of gravity of the global energy supply is poised to shift in the coming decades from the Middle East to the Americas, with salutory geopolitical effects. Opponents of exploration in the tar sands are in essence trying to delay those effects, to the benefit of the sort of people who won't let women drive, and it's good to see them being called out on this. Commentary's Alana Goodman followed Velshi to the anti-tar sands protest at the White House where, hilariously, Velshi borrowed a couple of think tank interns, dressed them in burkas, and had them join the protest on behalf of "Americans 4 OPEC."

The left is split on this issue, as many labor unions are in favor of the pipeline for the obvious reason that it would provide jobs for their members. The Laborers International Union Local 1140 -- joined by TransCanada's vice president -- marched in support of the pipeline in Omaha's Labor Day parade yesterday. The pipeline needs approval from the State Department, and while the Obama administration has hedged a bit it seems likely that they'll end up approving the pipeline. Talking to Velshi, though, I got the sense that his campaign isn't just about the pipeline -- it's about giving workers in Canada's much-maligned oil patch a reason to be proud of what they do. And given the alternatives, they should be proud.

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