photo: Jonathan McIntosh via flickr
With all the increased attention Canada's tar sands projects have been getting--both in terms of environmental impact and distributing them through pipeline into the United States--it's not surprising that many people are calling for a boycott on oil and fuel produced from tar sands. But is that really possible in a meaningful sense? Backing up, what prompted this was a report in the Toronto Sun about Gap, Levis, Timberland, and Walgreens pledging to boycott tar sands fuel, and the backlash by Canadian politicians.
Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, in an apparent fit of Orwellian doublespeak:
Those retailers have chosen a course of action without first talking to us about our environmental commitment and the efforts of thousands of Albertans working for government, industry and academic institutions to reduce the impact of oil sands development. Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North American with mandatory greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for all large emitters.
Tar Sands Dirty, Dirty, Dirty - Despite Spin to Contrary
Which as may be, but pretty much all the reduction of tar sands impact today still results in a situation where the oil produced requires far more energy to extract than conventional oil, far more water than conventional oil, pollutes water downstream with heavy metals, and is a wholesale environmental disaster.
Tar sands may employ a lot of people but that still doesn't make it a good thing to produce. Admitting the leap near to hyperbole: The slave trade employed lots of people up through the nineteenth century, with lots of people in government and industry dependently tied up with it, but that didn't and doesn't make it right.
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right, Especially When Comparing Different Industries
Stelmach went on to use some rhetorical slight of hand that would make any executive media trainer proud. He deflected:
Gap, a company that is regularly accused of using unethical labor practices in developing countries to produce its stock, wants the world to buy bloody oil from Nigeria and the Middle East.
Tsk, tsk, tsk, You don't get to play potential unethical labor practices of one company against decidedly environmentally damaging resource extraction practices. The two wrongs in no way cancel each other out. And frankly, labor practices in the garment manufacturing industry are capable of reform far, far more easily than tar sands production, which really isn't possible of reform at all--you're always going to have significant environmental problems with oil production and oil usage, full stop.
The Premier would be on stronger ground arguing that Gap ought to bring clothes production closer to the point of sale so that less fuel was used in transport and more local jobs created, but that would mean less fuel used and less of a market for tar sands.
Which brings us the first part of the big question: Is it possible to meaningfully boycott fuel produced from tar sands?
Say It With Me: All Oil Is Dirty
First of all, there is no socially or environmentally clean oil. Anywhere.
In those places where extraction is done in the most environmentally friendly way currently possible, there is still the climate change impact, the plastic waste impact, the land-use impact from auto-led development patterns, and more, to consider. One could argue that a much smaller level of oil use would make it less damaging, which is true, but it's only less damaging, not non-damaging.
Then those are those places--the tar sands being a prime example--where the oil produced is just an all out environmental horror show. Socially, positive things may be happening in the short term for part of the population, but what about the long term as well as the health of people downstream which is being compromised?
And those places--Nigeria being the most poignant, but far from only, example--where the discovery of oil has only brought social misery for the majority (while enriching the elite few) in addition to large scale pollution both at point of extraction and at the point of use.
It may be a lengthy transition, but getting of oil needs to be a universal priority and one pushed as quickly as possible, regardless of source.
Even a Boycott of Companies Investing in Oil Sands Not Fully Effective
Secondly, there is the practical aspect of a boycott. How do you go about it and how do you actually ensure you're not buying fuel made at least in part from tar sands?
The best you can do is not patronize companies with direct investment in tar sands projects: Shell, Chevron, Marathon all out. ExxonMobil out. BP out. The list could keep going--pretty much indefinitely if you set the bar by oil companies that have pledged to never delve into tar sands (or oil shale in the US). And even if you don't set the bar that high, those no practical guarantee that your fuel purchase doesn't include some portion of tar sands oil. Oil's traded as a commodity and there just isn't usually that direct a line between production, distribution and use.
Symbolism Only Goes So Far - We Need to Transition Off All Oil
There is symbolic and practical value in boycotting tar sands producers and financiers in terms of making sure they know in no uncertain terms how individuals and more ethically-minded companies feel about them. And at the political level we certainly need to keep pushing to halt further production, as well as pushing as hard as possible on transitioning off oil altogether. But let's not think that it's fully possible to not be dirtied by tar sands production when still buying oil.
Canada is the single-largest supplier of oil to the United States--it's exports south from tar sands are greater than domestic consumption. At current increasing rates of production, by 2030 up to 36% of the US oil supply will come from Alberta.
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More on Tar Sands:
Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth
National Geographic Slams Tar Sands - Canadian Politicians Pissed
Canadian Tar Sands Will Be US' Largest Imported Source in 2010: Ecologically Destructive & Immoral
Canadian Tar Sands Look Like Tolkein's Mordor Says UN Water Advisor