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Unethical Divestment

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With the battle for recognizable public policy ends turned drastically against them -- the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel for the Northern Gateway Pipeline recently recommended it be approved -- opponents of the oil sands are turning to what would be some new tactics. They would be new, that is, if they weren't already so old.

A push is now beginning to get Canadian university endowment funds to divest themselves of any investments they may have in the oilsands. The inspiration for this lays with the boycott, sanctions and divestment campaign undertaken against South Africa's Apartheid regime during the 1980s. (Anti-Israel activists are also attempting to apply such tactics against Israel, so far with no considerable successes to speak of.)

The role BDS played in the defeat of Apartheid has long been subject to debate. There have even been some arguments that BDS prolonged Apartheid, rather than shortening it.

But at least the BDS campaign, as applied to South African Apartheid, had one undeniable strength: it had a number of demands -- simply, the end of Apartheid -- that were achievable and morally superior to the status quo. There was simply no morally acceptable argument for the upholding of Apartheid.

The BDS campaign, as applied to the oil sands, has neither of these strengths. The demand to keep Albertan oil "in the soil" is not achievable, nor is it morally superior to the status quo. It is, in fact, ethically inferior to the status quo, and doubly inferior compared to expansion of the oil sands.

The BDS campaigners have put themselves at odds with a concept that so far none of its detractors have been able to counter: that concept, of course, being that of ethical oil.

The concept, popularized by Ezra Levant but owing at least equal credit to intellectual progenitors such as Mike Milke, holds that while oil is an imperfect fuel, no perfect fuel currently exists. Oil is the best currently available. And seeing as this is the case, oil will remain necessary until a better substitute is developed.

As such, the choice is not between oil and other pie-in-the-sky technologies, but between sources of oil. Accordingly, sources of oil are best evaluated on an ethical basis. The concept of ethical oil holds that the oil that is ethically best can be judged on a number of criteria:

-Human rights - is that oil produced in an environment that values human rights? Are minorities treated fairly or ruthlessly?

-Environmental protection - Is that oil produced with environmental protections in place?

-Economic benefit - Is the economic benefit of that oil shared, or is it reserved for a select group of people?

-The promotion of peace or conflict - Does the production of these oil resources fuel violence in the place where it is produced, or elsewhere in the world?\

Whether oilsands critics care to admit it or not, oilsands oil gets a passing grade on all four of these criteria. It doesn't score perfectly, but it passes.

But given that we've determined that oil will be used, if Alberta oil -- in particular oilsands oil -- remains "in the soil," as these activists demand, where will Canadians get their oil? Where will the people who would otherwise buy Canadian oil buy their oil? From whom?

The answer, as Levant has hammered over and over again, is quite simple: from Middle Eastern dictatorships and theocracies such as Saudi Arabia, or from failed state regimes such as Sudan. Places where human rights are not respected. Places where the environment is not protected. Places where oil money is horded for the sole benefit of royal families or ruling elites. Places where civil wars are fought over oil, or where the proceeds from the sale of oil are used to fund terrorism abroad.

Remarkably, if divestment from the oilsands were to lead to a shutdown of oilsands production, some very Apartheid-like regimes would find themselves profiting very handsomely from it. Which is ultimately where the movement to convince Canadian universities to divest from oilsands production meets the utter depths of its moral nadir.

These are, unfortunately, people who seem to lack the will to explore these issues in anything even resembling the requisite depth. Suffice to say, the fact that these people don't like the concept of ethical oil doesn't make it any less valid. They ignore it -- and act in a manner that would funnel business to very unethical oil producers -- at their own moral peril.

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