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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. You provide an interesting perspective but I strongly disagree with rejecting altruism.

    Oil companies will continue to be successful, especially when they support environmental initiatives. The more socially responsible oil companies have built a strong reputation and receive much more public acceptance than ones that try to maximize profits at all costs. Public resistance will cripple projects.

    The picture you paint of a world without fossil fuels is extreme, and very few would argue that we should turn off access to oil overnight. I could just as easily say, humans go extinct without the environment. Nothing is so black and white. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by implementing alternative sources of energy over the coming decades to reduce impacts of climate change.

    Holding your head high and disregarding social responsibility is arrogant and will lead to the downfall of any company. Sure Resolute may have quieted Greenpeace over their accusation that you already pointed out was false. Being stubborn on accusations that are true will destroy a company. Imagine if BP held its head high after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The company would have burned as quickly as the oil that leaked. And it is just as true for other energy companies. Arrogance in the nuclear industry 30 years ago resulted in tremendous resistance. Arrogance by renewable energy companies today is resulting in completely unnecessary resistance. You must always consult all stakeholders and get their buy in.

    • Thanks, Mats, for your comments. I respectfully disagree, here is my reply (with credit to Glenn Woiceshyn). I have inserted answers after each of your arguments which are placed in square brackets:

      [You provide an interesting perspective but I strongly disagree with rejecting altruism.]

      If human life and flourishing are values, altruism must be rejected.

      [Oil companies will continue to be successful, especially when they support environmental initiatives. ]

      But serious environmentalists want to shut down oil production, transportation and combustion, so that would definitely not lead to success.

      [The more socially responsible oil companies have built a strong reputation and receive much more public acceptance than ones that try to maximize profits at all costs.]

      Who defines social responsibility and by what standard? The only valid social responsibility is to obey objective laws that respect individual rights—not appease dishonest and destructive ideologues who worship nature religiously and want to impede industrialization. “Public acceptance” is only a value if the public has rational views. But if the public ignores the human benefits of capitalism and supports anti-capitalist causes, then the best approach is to educate the public, which is what I am trying to do.

      [Public resistance will cripple projects.]

      That may be, but letting environmentalists control politics will cripple the economy and much worse.

      [The picture you paint of a world without fossil fuels is extreme, and very few would argue that we should turn off access to oil overnight.]

      But it’s totally consistent with environmentalist ideology, and it’s the leaders that set the principles and direction. I could just as easily say, humans go extinct without the environment.
      You are conflating “environment” with “pristine nature”. Environment presupposes a class of living entities. The human environment is improved with technology, cheap and abundant energy and industrialization.

      [Nothing is so black and white.]

      That statement sounds “black and white”, so you are contradicting yourself. If fact, everything either is what it is or is not—either X or non-X. If you want to use a color analogy, then everything is either black or white.

      [We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by implementing alternative sources of energy over the coming decades to reduce impacts of climate change.]

      Why? There is no objective proof that climate change is caused by CO2 emissions. Climate has always changed and so our focus should be on being technically advanced and wealthy to deal with climate change. And it would be great if we could control it to our advantage.

      [Holding your head high and disregarding social responsibility is arrogant and will lead to the downfall of any company.]

      If knowing that one is right, is arrogance then a virtue because discovering the truth is a virtue?

      [Sure Resolute may have quieted Greenpeace over their accusation that you already pointed out was false. Being stubborn on accusations that are true will destroy a company. Imagine if BP held its head high after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.]

      But that’s a red herring—nobody is recommending that BP hold its head high for poor safety practices that killed innocent people.

      [The company would have burned as quickly as the oil that leaked. And it is just as true for other energy companies. Arrogance in the nuclear industry 30 years ago resulted in tremendous resistance.]

      Three Mile Island? Another accident but where nobody was killed that I recall. The anti-industrial environmental movement used it to destroy nuclear energy which is potentially the safest and cleanest source of abundant energy.

      [Arrogance by renewable energy companies today is resulting in completely unnecessary resistance. You must always consult all stakeholders and get their buy in.]

      “Unnecessary resistance” is caused by public ignorance about the nature of capitalism and environmentalism, which I am trying to correct. Stakeholder is a phony concept that’s designed to undermine property rights. Only shareholders should be consulted for corporate decisions that do not violate individual rights.

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