Ezra Levant poses in front of 'ethical' Peace River oil. Photos and additional reporting by Elle Kurancid.
“If someone ever in their life tells you that your oil is immoral, you’re a climate criminal… stop them right there and say: ‘Oh no, I’m not an oil man. No sir, no ma’am, I’m not. I’m an ethical oil man,’” said Ezra Levant, author of Ethical Oil. Massaging the bruised egos of Peace River, Alberta’s oil men and women, Levant gave the keynote speech at this year’s Peace Oil Sands Conference and Trade Show. “You need to show the self-confidence and the respect of knowing that everything we do is at the highest ethical levels in the world,” he told the local bitumen industry.
The event was held at the Belle Petroleum Centre where industry leaders last convened for public hearings in January. At the hearings, local residents testified that they have been experiencing horrifying health problems as a result of carcinogenic oil sands emissions that are vented continuously near their homes. Instead of discussing the area’s ruined lives and abandoned homes, its toxic air and lax regulations, or the seizures, shakes, debilitating pain, and bleeding orifices of impacted locals, industry convened to congratulate itself on a job well done, and to pretend that nothing bad ever happened.
“This is basically an industry love-in,” said Diane Plowman, a resident of the heavily impacted Three Creeks area. “A lot of it is industry talking about how wonderful they are, and their plans for expansion,” she said.
The sparsely attended conference attracted a handful of people from the general public and over a hundred from industry. Speakers throughout the conference, representing companies like TransCanada and PTI, regurgitated rhetoric from Levant’s book, while various corporate displays framed safety and environmental responsibility as the oil industry’s first and only apparent priorities.
“We are always trying to preserve and maintain the earth,” said a Tervita spokesperson, speaking for a company whose ever-growing oil sands landfill has been identified as a health concern by residents of Three Creeks. “We do it ethically and with engineered landfills,” the spokesperson said, clarifying that the company’s name is “a Spanish play on two different words: Terra meaning Earth, vita meaning life.”
“Oil has always been here. The technologies have just improved that we can recover those and do a better job of recovering and do a safer job and more environmentally safe job,” said a Baytex spokesperson. Baytex,
known locally for openly venting toxins into the air and forcing several families to abandon their homes, has decided to rebrand themselves as a “Good Neighbour”—pouring money into newspaper advertisements, community events, infrastructure, beautification projects, and environmental initiatives.
Complimentary copies of 'Ethical Oil,' the PR bible of the oil sands.
When asked what a bad neighbour might be, Baytex’s spokespeople couldn’t fathom an answer. “I don’t think we have ever thought about it that way… I don’t think it’s in our view to compare us with a bad neighbour. Who would that be?” one spokesperson asked. “Then we’re getting into finger pointing and we don’t want to do that,” another added.
Dry days filled with Orwellian doublespeak culminated in a presentation from Ezra Levant, a broadcaster known for airing racist rants and fabricating news, a convicted libellant, and founder of the Ethical Oil Institute which has ties to the Prime Minister’s Office. Levant downplayed the environmental impacts of the oil sands and recast them as a bastion of human, worker, and aboriginal rights. He retraced the genesis of his “ethical oil” worldview, arguing that Canada’s oil industry is ethical because it is produced in a vacuum of pitiful alternatives.
“If we were talking about olive oil instead of crude oil, get it from Greece, Italy, Spain, whatever, good guys. But we’re not talking about that—we’re talking about crude oil. And I do not know what God was thinking when he handed out this stuff, but he gave it to all the world’s bastards,” Levant said. The industry audience roared with applause.
“Except us,” Levant clarified. “Except us,” a woman in the crowd repeated aloud.
“Environmental responsibility, peace, the treatment of workers, and human rights. These are the values that our critics claim they believe in,” Levant said. “If you look at their own values, there is no other alternative for them but to buy oil from Alberta. In fact, not just to be OK with it, but to produce as much as we possibly can—to double it, to triple it, knowing that every barrel of oil we sell is one fewer barrel than the dictators of the world, the women-stoning, gay-hanging, union busting, aboriginal crushing tyrants of the world will sell. That’s $100 less, at best, to some new golden palace in the desert, and at worst to a terrorist.”
Offering attendees a fearful and largely xenophobic vision of the world, Levant drew upon photos of a gay couple that was executed in Iran, newspaper headlines about Saudi women being beheaded, stories of kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, and a calculation for the amount of Sudanese blood per barrel of exported oil, based on the lives lost in a genocide that so-called ethical Canada did nothing to prevent. Standing before a list of the world’s largest oil reserves by country, with OPEC nations marked by skull and cross bone logos, Levant failed to mention that Canada’s “ethical” oil sands host
the exact same corporations that profit off of the rest of the world’s “unethical” oil reserves.
Ezra Levant gives his keynote speech.
When asked by our reporter if he was promoting a worldview based on hostility, fear, supremacy, and division, Levant clarified: “To call Saudi Arabia, Iran, Boko Haram, Nigeria bastards is an insult. You’re right. And I feel insulting towards them. I despise them. They are odious… If I was speaking honestly I would be swearing about those people right now—a blue streak. So I’m not even expressing the real depth of my hatred for them. And it’s hate.”
“Canada is so peaceful we actually won a Nobel Peace prize for inventing peacekeeping,” Levant said, standing before a photo of Canada’s troops. “Saudi Arabia? Well, they invented 9/11… Iran is building nuclear weapons as fast as they can and the missiles to deliver them,” Levant said, perhaps unaware that Canada has exported military vehicles to Saudi Arabia and radioactive tritium, a hydrogen bomb component, to Iran. Ethical oil, ethical guns, ethical bombs, of course.
“He used the example that our oil sands are ethical because we don’t kidnap young schoolgirls and hold them for ransom. And that’s very true, but we do a lot of things that aren’t proper either,” said Three Creeks resident Diane Plowman. “I think he was intentionally selective… We have families who have had to leave their homes because of the air quality.”
Mild mannered and ideologically moderate, Plowman typifies Peace River’s environmental activists: She’s happy to co-exist with Big Oil, so long as they don’t trample her rights. “Everybody needs to live safely, live in a healthy environment, and make a reasonable living. And going beyond that seems pretty greedy, from a resident point of view, when you see industry just driving like bats out of hell to get to the bank to pay their shareholders, [paying] no attention to our health and safety concerns,” she said.
Plowman said it took eight years of filing emissions complaints for Alberta’s regulators to even acknowledge that something was wrong. “I think integrity is what happens—what people do, what companies do—when nobody is forcing you to do it. We haven’t seen a huge amount of activity that wasn’t a result of some really, really serious pressure from residents… so is that ethical? I would suggest not,” she said.
“But I guess it depends on how you define ethical.”
“We could have an environmentally responsible, planned, measured approach to bitumen extraction, and we don’t have that,” Plowman said. “We’ve come to discover as residents that industry operates at the lowest common denominator of compliance that they’re able to and still meet the requirements of a regulator that has very lax standards and air quality standards.”
Diane Plowman holds a chart of resident symptoms for January 2014.
Plowman places blame with the Alberta Energy Regulator, an industry funded corporation that oversees the oil sands. “It’s jet speed ahead, in terms of approvals, without really considering how we’re going to manage this,” she said.
To those in attendance, the AER gave a cryptic speech on the virtues of their regulatory regime, promising that they “will develop a model for a best-in class regulator and will then work toward achieving this ideal.”
“Previously you didn’t have any regulations and you weren’t effectively monitoring,” one resident, Reid Glenn, responded. “We see that several families were displaced in the Reno area. And now you’re coming out and saying ‘Hey, we’ve got a world-class system. And we’re going to do better.’ Well, I appreciate hearing that you are going to do better… because, in the past, you haven’t been doing a very good job. And the examples are the eight hundred pages of evidence in the inquiry,” Glenn said.
Plowman asked the AER how they’ll address the industry’s cumulative environmental impacts, to which they responded: “I don’t think there’s a definitive, square answer on that … Until we have the facts, the information, the understanding, the bigger picture pieced together, it’s really hard to say how our response and how our move forward will be.”
“Thanks for not saying anything,” Glenn retorted from his seat in the crowd.
The polite interventions of concerned residents like Plowman and Glenn flew in the face of the wild conspiracies spun by Levant. “The other side is not gentle. The other side is violent,” Levant told his audience. He had few real examples of violent environmentalism to draw upon, so he showed the crowd images of G20 protesters in Toronto instead. Yet, in one of his television broadcasts, now removed from the Sun News website, Levant cynically extended this fantasy. Exploiting the lost lives of Lac-Mégantic, he reported that environmentalists could have deliberately sabotaged the oil train and caused the explosion.
Levant instructed industry that environmentalists believe in “de-growth: It’s an apocalyptic, Luddite, Malthusian ideology.” Fuelling a culture of hysteria, he said: “I’m just getting you into the mind of people who have more money than you, and who want to put you out of work… I’m trying to scare you a little bit, make you as scared as I am. They believe in pre-industrial sustainable culture—that’s what they call living in caves, that’s what they call living in North Korea—they call that sustainable. Life expectancy: 30.”
In the minds of many attending the conference and trade show, before Levant took centre stage, the prospect of a world without oil was already terrifying. "Promoting continuous, rapid, oil sands growth, attendees and industry spokespeople seemed unable to grasp the difference between a total collapse of petro-civilization and a gradual shift away from it."
Levant’s conspiracy deepened. He turned his attention to a straw-man called “Zoe,” an invented emblem of Canada’s hopelessly misguided anti-oil sands youth. Zoe, Levant explained, is a hypothetical “20-something university student from McGill taking vegetarian studies,” who only knows “what David Suzuki told them on TV.” She’s a Prius-driving, Eastern Canadian, latte-sipping barista, who luxuriates on an allowance from her parents and is “full of love, idealism—she’s maybe a little utopian: She wants to heal the world.” Through the propaganda onslaught of “international professional troublemakers” and “paid actors,” who operate with “hundred million or billion dollar budgets,” Zoe has been deceived into a blind anti-oil sands fury—indoctrinated into a “quasi-new, pagan religion” where she believes “the Earth is warming and it’s because we’re burning oil.”
“I always wonder, are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria… funding the anti-oil groups?” Levant asked.
Ezra Levant's 'Zoe.'
“When I was a school kid way back in the 20th century, we first learned about CO2 when we studied photosynthesis. Back then, CO2 was called plant food. But now it’s called pollution,” Levant said. “And I apologize—I’m emitting some CO2 right now. And earlier today, I apologize, I emitted some methane,” he said, prompting audience laughter.
“Tailings ponds? Yeah, we’ve got tailings ponds. They’ll be cleaned up,” he assured the crowd, referring to the giant poisonous lakes in Fort McMurray’s oil sands. Someone in the audience laughed.
Levant concluded to a sustained applause. “Thanks for coming to Peace River,” a man in the audience shouted proudly.
He abandoned the stage, announcing it was time for him to catch a flight out of town. And while all moral and ethical responsibility was deflected onto boogeymen in faraway places, a very real industrial violence remains in the Peace River region.
“If we continue on with the use of energy in the way that we’re doing now, we need to make sure that we’re extracting it in an environmentally safe manner: Safe for the people that live there; safe for the workers that work in that industry; and safe for the ecosystems that will hopefully long survive all of us,” Diane Plowman said. “We hear a lot about 35-year plans for oil sands infrastructure and bitumen extraction facilities—that’s half a lifetime. We need to think way beyond us and think about the generations that are coming after us. The generations before us took good care of our land and here we are taking every ounce of goodness out of the earth and on top of the Earth and leaving a mess for generations to come.”
“Maybe we’re sucking it dry and one day this world will just collapse. Maybe, but who knows?” asked Kirby Dachuk, an oil industry veteran. “In the meantime, I still gotta keep doing what I’m doing though to survive. And if I don’t, I lose my home. My kids don’t get to go get a bike once in a while… They don’t get shoes. They walk around like cavemen.”
“It’s tough, especially here, when you start fighting it. Then nobody’s working and everybody’s got a hate-on,” Dachuk said.
“It’s interesting what greed and the dollar sign does for a community,” Plowman echoed,noting that “this whole thing has fractured our community beyond measure—families fighting with families… It’s a very small community and you see everybody everywhere. Lots of people who are directly employed know they can’t stand up and say anything without consequences.”
“It’s so hard to get people to go beyond their wallet, their own wallet, and say ‘is this the right thing?’ Not just ‘how much money can I make from this?’” Plowman concluded. Regardless, she stressed: “Unless we’re dying, we’re here and we’re going to push for some cleaner air.”