Neil Young, the aging rock star, has taken up a new cause: criticizing the Canadian oil sands development in Northern Alberta. He called it “worse than Hiroshima” and “the ugliest thing I have ever seen.” He is currently on a concert tour raising funds to help the Alberta Fort Chipewyan First Nation to fight the expansion of the oil sands development.

Young is not the first celebrity to attack the oil sands development. However, his case stands out in two ways, one negative and one positive.

Let’s start with the bad news. Neil Young’s is the most immoral of the celebrity attacks so far. When given a tour of the oil sands operations in Fort McMurray, he chose to focus on the physical appearance of the open pit mine—which will be reclaimed when mining ends—and ignore all the other relevant facts. Other celebrity critics (movie director James Cameron comes to mind) have changed their stance when they learned the facts about the oil sands, but not Neil Young. He failed to acknowledge the tremendous value of the oil sands to human flourishing. More than half (1.8 million barrels/day) of Canada’s crude oil production comes from the oil sands, providing energy and raw materials  for  products that make human life better: heat for our homes, fuel for our cars, power for industrial production,  and plastics and synthetic fibers  for a myriad of products we use daily. The oil sands contribute about $84 billion a year to the Canadian economy, and $1.8 billion per year in revenue to the aboriginal businesses—owned by the people that Neil Young claims to be helping.

When Young was called out on his ignorant remarks, he further revealed the extent of his irrationality by admitting that he didn’t know what he was talking about—“1’m just a musician”—but insisting that he has a right to his opinion and that many people want to hear what he has to say. Of course Mr. Young has a right to his ignorance and the right to broadcast it to others (who have the right to believe him), but making pronouncements that are untrue does not change the facts (even if the pronouncements are made by a celebrity). Irrationality never sleeps.

Now the good news. Neil Young’s oil sands attack stands out also in a positive way: the oil companies are not taking it lying down—they are defending themselves, vigorously! Brian Ferguson, CEO of Cenovus Energy, one of Canada’s largest oil companies, said in a talk to business executives in Toronto: “Over the next decade, oil sands production in Canada is expected to double. And that has our critics screaming. They want you to believe that the planet is doomed if the oil sands production continues.” Ferguson was joined in defending the oil industry by Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada Corp., an oil pipeline company: “They say new oil pipelines must be stopped at all costs. They call it ‘dirty oil,’ ‘the most destructive project on Earth.’ These accusations are absolutely baseless. Yet they make front page headlines…Canadians should be outraged by these allegations. It is time that we started thinking critically about this subject.” (See the National Post story here). Dave Collyer, the head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has also stood up to Neil Young’s media headline-creating vitriolic rant and defended his industry: “…In the case of Mr. Young’s opinion of the oil sands, I would suggest he has the democratic right to be wrong.”

The oil companies’ vigorous defense of themselves is an encouraging departure from their previous approach, which Yadullah Hussain of the National Post called “a congenial dialogue with their worst critics.” That oil companies are defending their right to develop the oil sands is encouraging because appeasing your enemies never amounts to achievement of life-enhancing values but to their loss. The more the oil sands producers have apologized and emphasized how they minimize the environmental impact of their operations, the more they have been attacked by celebrities and other critics, who are either ignorant or have an anti-human environmental agenda (or both) and demand ending or slowing down oil sands production. It is about time the oil companies take the high moral ground and tell the world what a crucial value oil and other fossil fuels are to us  (see Center for Industrial Progress’ website on defending the oil industry) and stand up to famous but ignorant and immoral critics such Neil Young. Irrationality never sleeps—but we must be vigilant against it if we want to survive and flourish.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.


  1. Well, gosh, if Neil Young wants to talk about World War II events people could recite history such as Hitler’s demonization of Jews – Young’s tactic against oil sands development.

    Young is actually hurting himself by his extreme rhetoric – even the naive mass of voters will see the claimed parallel as irrelevant.

    Young’s admittance of ignorance shows his method of knowledge – un-validated feelings.

    As for energy companies waking up to the reality that appeasement does not work, there’s a huge lesson from World War II – British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s behaviour toward Hitler when it was obvious that Hitler could never be trusted to do anything but pursue his goal of expanding control.

  2. It always amazes me that Canada gets bashed…Perhaps it is time for the anti oil/gas protestors to take a good look out there own back doors. Take a drive through North Dakota, it wasn’t very pretty before, but it has been raped of what beauty it had left…and as for safety and enviromental standards??? That is a whole other story. Go for a cruise and check out Texas, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and lets not forget Ohio..All these States are being raped of there beauty…I guess that just does not matter…For some reason it is all about Canada. Canada has great safety and enviromental standards, do your research!!! I would like to see how long a person could survive without using oil or gas??? It’s almost impossible to find a product that is not made in China these days for cryin out loud. Stop being such HYPOCRITES…enjoy what life gives you and thank Canada and all the other Countries for allowing that to be possible. And Thank the men and women working in this Dirty, Thankless, long hours of hardwork industry… I know I do.

  3. Delighted to see energy producers expressing pride at ‘what keeps food on the table’. Their previous timidity was both destructive and embarrassing to see. Thanks for a good article BTW

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