On Friday I attended a conference in Calgary where Canadian journalist and broadcaster Rex Murphy delivered a rousing defense of the Alberta oil sands development. He received a standing ovation. Rex’s message, in a nutshell, was this: human well-being depends on the oil industry, the oil sands are a tremendous source of wealth creation, and people in the industry should be proud of the work they do—and they should not appease their critics. Yet, the oil industry is the most hated industry in the world, and the oil sands are particularly targeted for criticism—unfoundedly—as “dirty” oil.
I completely agree with Rex’s message and will make the moral case here for the oil sands industry and against appeasing its critics. The oil sands developers are continually vilified and attacked by environmentalists, leftist academics, and most of the media. Instead of standing their ground and defending themselves as the moral producers and benefactors of human life, the oil sands companies appease their critics: “Look, we are not that bad—we only disturb 0.02% of the Canadian boreal forests.” They emphasize how many million trees they have planted to reclaim land after mining has been completed, how they prevent birds from landing into tailings ponds, and how much water their operations recycle. This is because the companies have accepted their critics’ claims and their underlying moral premise: that not disturbing forests and protecting birds must be placed ahead of human well-being (or replace it altogether). This is the premise of altruism, according to which sacrificing our interests for the sake of others or the environment (whose environment?) is good and pursuing self-interest such as profit through oil production is evil.
It is the premise of altruism that the companies must reject, if they want to survive and flourish, and embrace the idea that oil sands are a tremendous value—if human well-being is the standard—and that profit motive is moral and necessary to achieve that value.
There is nothing wrong with reclaiming land, protecting birds, and recycling water—when they benefit human well-being. However, such actions pale in comparison to the tremendous value of oil and other fossil-fuels for our ability to survive and flourish; without fossil fuels our life as we know it would end very quickly. We could not heat and light our homes and offices and power our factories. We would not be able to communicate via telephones and the Internet and to travel quickly by airplanes, trains and cars. We would not have any products that contain plastics (which today is mostly everything) or synthetic fibres (most of our clothes today). Instead of turning a switch or briefly using an electric appliance or a power tool, without oil production we would have to spend our days in physical labor just in order to survive.
The creation of energy and products for human well-being is what the oil sands companies must highlight to defend themselves. Instead of appeasing, they should assert their moral right to develop the resource and profit from it—which benefits us all—and show the human ingenuity such development requires. Appeasing your critics never works: the more you appease, the more you get attacked. Witness the continual barrage against the oil sands companies and the oil sands developers in particular.
But the reverse is also true: by asserting your moral right to create wealth and by standing your ground, you will silence your critics. Consider a case from a different industry, reported by Peter Foster in a recent column in the National Post. Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products did not cave in to Greenpeace’s unfounded accusations of illegal road-building and secret logging. Instead, Resolute CEO Richard Garneau defended his company, according to Foster, “quickly and vociferously” and showed that Greenpeace’s accusations were false. At first, Greenpeace tried to make its accusations louder but soon changed its tune (perhaps anticipating damage to its brand) and apologized to Resolute—something that the environmentalist advocacy group has hardly ever done.
The oil sands companies’ leadership should model itself after Richard Garneau, vigorously defending themselves against falsehoods about environmental and economic impact of the oil sands production, but more importantly, making the moral case for the tremendous value of oil and other fossil fuels for human welfare. (For more information on defending the oils sands and the oil industry, consult the website of the Center for Industrial Progress). The leaders of the oil sands companies, and everyone working in the industry, should heed Rex Murphy’s message and be proud of the tremendous accomplishments of their work—and hold their heads high.