TORONTO—Ever since Ezra Levant started the oil-funded group, Ethical Oil, we’ve been told to avoid so-called conflict oil and embrace oil from liberal democracies like ours. 
It’s tempting, perhaps, to see irony in Canada currently ramming through a sweeping budget bill that cracks down on liberal freedoms. But focusing here does a disservice to the larger hypocrisy at play.
So let’s focus on the raison d’être of Ethical Oil and probe a little deeper into its mountain of contradictory rhetoric, which has nothing to do with freedom unless it’s the freedom that Big Oil obviously feels an entitlement to enjoy.  To that end, some simple questions.
Question  No. 1:  If it’s unethical to buy from conflict countries, how is it ethical to sell to them?
When Iran or North Korea pursue nuclear weapons, liberal democracies impose sanctions.  The same is true—in Syria, or apartheid-era South Africa—when governments take away their own citizens’ rights.  There’s plenty of precedent that when rights are in peril, we stop selling things to countries imperilling them.
Indeed, a May 19 tweet from Ethical Oil condemned Venezuela for shipping oil to Syria, thus worsening its conflict. Somehow, this logic gets lost in the push for the Northern Gateway pipeline—whose main point is to diversify oil exports to Asia. It’s funny how China is not named by Ethical Oil as the preferred buyer. But I will guessThe Globe and Mail had it right with its headline about a recent trade trip: “Eager to sell Alberta oil, Harper schedules return trip to China.”
Somehow, Ethical Oil was quiet.  Perhaps, because only Syria’s regime benefits from more oil, not China’s. Or perhaps because they support selling oil to China. Given everything, it’s safe to assume the latter.
Last time I checked, China is not a liberal democracy.  It jails dissidents.  It censors the internet.  It’s vetoing ways to help the Syrian people at the UN Security Council.  Just this month, on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the Shanghai stock market tumbled 64.89 points (the date of the June 4, 1989 uprising).  Naturally, the government blocked people searching for stock prices.
It was curious, then, to see Ethical Oil support, on the day of the Black Out Speak Out online protest, a tweet that said “it’s nice to live in a nation where you can choose to black out your website…in some countries, the government does it for you.”
Given one of these countries is where Ethical Oil’s corporate masters want to make a lot of money, the obvious question: is this ethical?
Question No. 2:  How can China’s environmental laws be good and bad at the same time?
This month, Ethical Oil heralded Intel’s wish to make computer chips from conflict-free rare earths.  A blog lauded it for wanting, “a chip free of rare-earth metals that are most commonly mined for in environmentally irresponsible ways, such as in China, or from areas, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the human cost of mining is extraordinarily high.”
Good for Intel.  Naturally, Ethical Oil held Canada up as somewhere where environmental protection is always at the fore.
However, it also supports the Northern Gateway pipeline.  As envisioned, this will ship raw bitumen from Alberta, through Northern B.C., to Kitimat, where it will be put on tankers.  The destination for these tankers will be China.  And since the pipeline proposal doesn’t include processing the tar sands oil here, it will have to be done there, which raises an obvious question: if Chinese regulations are too lax to process rare earths, is it ethical to let them oversee processing tar sands oil?
Question  No. 3:  Is conflict due to the country, or the company?
Ethical Oil has had a lot of fun mocking anyone for comments that mention Nigeria.  It’s one of the countries regularly held up as the kind of moral backwater where rights are trampled, the kind best avoided when we buy our oil.  Funny how the country, not the industry, is always to blame, but I digress.
Indigenous people in Nigeria—where Shell has major operations—are currently seeking compensation at a UN human rights body for alleged atrocities in the 1990s.  Allegations of ongoing problems continue, backed up by prestigious groups like Amnesty International.
Shell is also accused of exaggerating the sabotage of one of its Nigerian pipelines to avoid paying a $100-million fine to clean up an oil spill.  And, indeed, after decades of oil production, Nigeria’s Niger Delta is one of the world’s most polluted areas. 
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, another country Ethical Oil loves to highlight, Shell is a corporate partner of Hugo Chavez’s very own, state-owned oil company.  All of which raises another question: given the awful state of human rights in places like Nigeria and Venezuela, is there any obligation for companies like Shell to withdraw?
And if Shell is comfortable doing business there, is it really ethical to say nothing about it also doing business in Canada’s tar sands?
Question No. 4:  What, exactly, is ethical about how Canada has treated First Nations?
Ethical Oil loves to mock environmentalists for suggesting that rights in Canada are under attack.  On May 7, it tweeted to one Canadian greenie that her  “antics detract from the struggle of those whose human rights are actually trampled in Saudi Arabia or Iran.”
How smug we are.  Many First Nations in Canada live in squalor.  Until recently, families were forcibly broken up and people sent to live on remote Arctic islands whose terrain bore no resemblance to their former homes.  The land claims process Canada now has in part stems from recognizing these injustices, and First Nations’ right to consent to what happens on their traditional lands.
There’s a shocking confluence—in South America, Asia or Africa—of indigenous rights being trampled to benefit Big Oil.  And wouldn’t you know it, First Nations along the proposed pipeline route in northern British Columbia are overwhelmingly opposed to it.
Another question then: is it ethical to ignore these First Nations voices, or are they another ‘antic’ that trivializes real problems elsewhere?
Question No. 5:  Is global warming ethical?
Somehow, our ethical obligations never seem to include fighting global warming.  This can’t be due to ignorance of the human misery that catastrophic climate change will bring.  It’s due instead to powerful interests just not thinking it’s a priority. 
So a final question: is making global warming worse ethical?
Just asking.
Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence ( and co-author of the bestselling book “Slow Death by Rubber Duck:  How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.”  The views expressed here are his own.
The Hill Times