Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey on 'Ethical Oil' Ads

Read time: 7 mins

Dear Oprah,

I just don't know where to begin. 

I can't find my words because I respect you so much. You're a woman pioneer who has done much to advance the status of women globally. You've donated millions of dollars to various organizations, and have used your talk show to raise the profile of women's issues. Your philanthropy has funded projects like The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, and Women for Women International. You've also used your celebrity to raise awareness of environmental causes, notably the efforts to rebuild the Gulf. 

That's why I'm so stumped right now by your choice to feature ads from on your television network. 

I'm all about the work that you do, but the logic of promoting tar sands oil by appealing to our desire for women's liberation, our desire to help protect women in despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, is deeply flawed and misguided. 

The ad [below], which is airing exclusively on your network in Canada, claims that strict rules in Saudi Arabia prevent women from driving, from leaving their homes or working without their male guardian's permission. With those sad facts firmly established, the ads powerfully appeal to our deep emotions about women's rights, human rights and fundamental political freedoms by implying that by buying “conflict oil”, we are supporting oppression. 

The ad presents Canada's tar sands as an “ethical oil” alternative to “conflict oil”. At the end of the ad the viewer is told “It's a choice we have to make”. 

So, to be clear, the argument being put forward on your network is that expanding tar sands production will help liberate women from oppressive petrocracies like Saudi Arabia. It also appears to imply that we must support the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would massively expand tar sands production, because it will decrease our reliance on conflict oil. 

Let's unpack this argument a little further.

I agree with you that Saudi Arabia abuses women's rights. But let's be perfectly clear: the link that this ad campaign tries to make – that expanding tar sands production will somehow liberate Saudi Arabian women – doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

The choice about whether or not to buy bitumen from the tar sands has no real effect on Saudi Arabia's oil revenues. We live in a world that is hungrier and hungrier for the stuff. The United States and Canada combined hold less than 5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Increasing output from the tar sands won't substantially decrease our reliance on foreign oil, and it won't reduce the world's demand for Saudi Arabia's crude.

Kate Sheppard aptly notes in Mother Jones that even with increased tar sands output, Saudi Arabia will continue to have the largest oil reserves in the world and be the world's largest exporter. Expanding the tar sands just makes it easier for us to keep delaying the transition to clean energy.

Glenn Hurowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, does a great job of debunking this claim. Basic oil industry economics show that the argument that domestic drilling will reduce consumption of foreign oil is deeply flawed. Here's how it works: 

Because Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil is so much cheaper to produce and more plentiful than remaining domestic oil reserves, those countries can almost always outcompete domestic U.S. competitors and still maintain their enormous profit margins and high levels of production. Saudi and Iraqi oil, for instance, costs just $4-$6 per barrel to produce with another $2-$3 tacked on for transportation costs (costs are similar for Iranian oil). Production costs for tar-sands oil clock in at a minimum of $30 per barrel; costs for other domestic sources are similar.

Increasing the output of the tar sands is thus not going to hurt Saudi Arabia oil coffers in any meaningful way. 

Mike G at the Rainforest Action Network notes that TransCanada’s own research demonstrates that the raison d'être of the Keystone XL pipeline was never to decrease our reliance on foreign oil from “unfriendly regimes”. We will have to continue importing just as much oil from Saudi Arabia. The pipeline is designed to keep Gulf Coast refineries running at capacity, not to replace current oil imports. 

Oprah, let's not use these women as pawns to support tar sands extraction in Canada. You can support women's liberation efforts. You can oppose development of the tar sands. To say the least, these issues are not mutually exclusive. 

The Ethical Oil ads airing in Canada are duplicitous, and use the worst kind of fear mongering and manipulation tactics to sell us the filthiest oil on the planet.

Speaking of duplicitous manipulation, the people behind the Ethical Oil blog and ad claim to be a small Toronto-based NGO to hide deep connections to the Alberta oil industry. Oprah, I'm curious to understand how a small non-profit managed to land a featured spot on your network.

I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that neither you nor your production company are directly funded by tar sands interests. But if you really believe that is a small grassroots non-profit concerned with the plight of women, you've been sorely misled.

According to Deep Climate, Ethical Oil isn't the low budget grassroots organization it purports to be. Its principals are some of the rising stars of the conservative movement in Canada, and one is a lawyer for tar sands firms.

Here's the back story: Ezra Levant turned “ethical oil” into a meme late last year. Almost overnight, pro-industry and government officials, keen to sell the filthy oil to a skeptical public, picked up the term and ran with it.  After the Conservative election victory in May, Conservative government spokesperson (and former American Enterprise Institute intern) Alykhan Velshi took over at the helm of the blog. The blog is registered to Levant, who also has strong links to the Conservatives.

And, here's another thing that just doesn't add up for me. How is it that a former advisor to Environment Minister John Baird, and communications director for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, would find himself taking an “unpaid” job as a blogger?

Thanks to the folks over at Deep Climate, it makes a lot more sense. is connected to the obscure Ethical Oil Institute. Though there is scant reference to them online, according to their notice of incorporation, the institute was registered on March 9, 2011 to an Edmonton address, 12220 Stony Plain Road, Edmonton AB T5N 3Y4 

That just so happens to be the address of the law firm McLennan Ross. McLennan Ross makes bathtubs full of money doing work for tar sands firms. 

The two members of the Ethical Oil Institute's board of directors are Ezra Levant and McLellan Ross partner Thomas Ross. Thomas Ross is one of ten lead partners in McLellan Ross’s initiative, a “slick new oilsands cross-selling strategy” and marketing campaign.

And this makes me question's PayPal donation statement that clearly maintains it “will not take money from foreign corporations, foundations, governments, or lobbyists.” The evidence that's stacking up sure seems to suggest otherwise. 

Oprah, sorry to break it to you, but the facts suggest that is just a really clever PR tool for the oil industry.

To echo the ad, “It's a choice we have to make”. To that I ask you, what's your choice going to be? If you want to support women's liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia, why don't you fund women's liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia?

Oprah, this is what I know for sure: There's nothing ethical about oil, no matter where it comes from. If you actually want to take on Saudi sheiks, then support a transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.  


Emma Pullman, Vancouver BC

Ethical Oil TV Ad - Saudi Arabia (The ad Saudi Arabia doesn't want you to see)

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…does not mean rape (of the environment) is okay.

We have to get away from this idea that tar sands oil is okay because Canada is a nice country. If an action is wrong it does not matter who perpetrates it.

The ecological carnage that is the tar sands should stand or fall ethically on its own merits.

(Sorry for posting twice in short order.)

Stephen Harper is currently saber rattling about the great threat of ‘Islamicism’ in Canada. Note that he is clearly not saying fundamentalism. All Muslims are being painted with the same,  ‘You can’t trust them.’ brush. Say what you will about the Canadian Prime Minister but he is the master of staying on message so clearly this is not accidental.

Maybe I’m being paranoid but it sure seems like Harper sees selling dirty oil as worth the political cost of demonizing Islam.

Unless it is a message that he believes Canadians are ready to accept in which case I weep for my country.

It is mostly the right that denigrates & demonizes Islam anyway, so he is just simply echoing  right wing populist beliefs. It’s dog whistle politics. The right are the majority in  Canada at present, so echoing their sentimentalities will only get more pats on the back & high fives.


Rick, I can only speak for myself as an agnostic/atheist by saying I disagree with both Christianity & Islam equally. In fact I don’t agree with any religion.

From my perspective & for many in my religious position, we see Christianity & Islam as just being business franchises & as bad as each other. It’s ridiculous to point to one (Islam) & denigrate it, when those who call themselves Christians are just as bad. This juxtaposition is religious McArthyism to say progressives are denigrating & demonizing Christians while somehow being sympathetic to Islam, its religious patriotism.

Don’t get me wrong. After growing up in a highly religious & conservative family, I know there are many good morals & general values that religion has to offer. It’s just that very few follow the rules anymore.  Or they make up their own rules, re-interpret rules & the franchises all come up with their own unique interpretations of the rules too.

The trend of right wing politicians , journalists & shock jocks delivering nationalistic dog whistle messages, pro fossil fuel & religious intolerance is more about preserving the funding from these groups, while at the same time preserving their voting base than anything else. 


Clean coal? Ethical Oil? What is next from the right wing? Edible Asbestos?

Oprah, this is Clearly NOT something that you, of all people, should be endorsing. Surely you can get by on the millions that you are already rolling in without doing such harm by letting a cretin like Ezra Levant and the right wing nutters he works for, buy time to spread his lies on your Network. Yes Canada is a basically ethical place, but the right wing will not rest until that is simply no longer the fact.

No, really, what’s next? Edible Asbestos?

Maybe it will be ~ I never thought I’d have to deal with an Un-ethical Oprah either.

My real name by the way is Kim Leaman, not sure how you came up with that! Lol!


Kim!! Don’t give them ideas.

They have already shown that they could con people with smoking, when it was obviously harmful. Conning people that AGW is no threat is a cake walk.

The concept of “ethical” oil is that if we are going to use oil anyway, which oil does the least harm in the grand scheme of things?

Lapping up oil by living the western lifestyle while comparing it to asbestos is positively schizophrenic.

Don’t quite follow your tortured logic.  Just because something is less harmful doesn’t mean it’s ethical. That’s like saying Hitler was ethical because he killed 6 million people, while Stalin killed 50 million.

The point is moot anyway, since tar sands oil is more harmful than conventional oil. And selling it to the US, the world’s no.1 interventionist and terrorist nation, hardly makes Canada ‘ethical’.

Asbestos wasn’t being compared, it was being used in a ‘slippery slope’ type argument. Still, it would make an apt comparison.

How about this one: paper or plastic shopping bags at the grocery store. Both come with an environmental price, but one is probably more “ethical” than the other.

Another example: you can buy gas from the filling station on the east side of town but the station owner is a wife beater. The owner of the filling station on the west side of town is known to be upstanding and valued member of the community who does volunteer work. Where do you fill your gas tank?

If you think that the Tar Sands are an ‘upstanding and valued member of the community who does volunteer work’, you’re on quaaludes.

A more accurate comparison would be: “…you can buy gas from the filling station on the east side of town but the station owner is a wife beater. The owner of the filling station on the west side of town is known to be a profiteering, greedy, calculating bastard who screws over everyone wherever he goes, and then leaves them to wallow in the aftermath, who attracts a cadre of whoring, drug-addled mercinaries to enact his dirty work in-situ, and who poisons the town well while denying it, and claims that everything’s fine while the folks who use the well get sick en-masse”.

False goddamned choice if you ask me: they’re both terrible options.  Why don’t we look at the other oft-ignored options instead for once, rather than creating pseudo-ethical fantasies out of one side of our collective mouths, while continuing to send money to despotic corporate interests with vested interest in maintaining the status-quo out of the other. Ratherwhy not pursue more responsible—more ethical, since that’s the mot du jour—alternatives?

These ads contain the worst kind of non-sequitur argument: that somehow our choice to expand domestic oil production is going to make womens lives better in Saudi arabia, or at least act as a financially punitive measure to scold the arbiters of their status-quo, and redeem ourselves through our disassociation with their economy.

What a bloody joke.  Saudi women’s & human rights are a distinct issue, and deserve to be treated as such, and not used cynically as leverage in an argument for a deceptive, lesser-of-two-evils choice “we’ve got to make” in favor of stepping up our production of domestic oil.  

Posing the argument that we either need to chose the oppression of Saudi Women, or the destruction of our domestic ecosystems and environmental health—never mind the real direct and peripheral violence being consistently waged against our own native peoples that inhabit all of the areas that we extract resources from—is a truly idiotic, insulting, emotionally manipulative, and downright deceptive tactic.

And you’re running them on your network, Harpo.  Shame on you.

Hi Emma,

Have you had a chance to read Ezra’s Book “Ethical Oil”? if not I highly recommend it. As for your view on oil, I do agree with you on how inexcusable the abuse being set upon the women in SA is.  However that is not the way it is in Canada. My question to you today is what are you righting this blog on? also what do you use to watch Oprah’s network, or even just her commercial?  Do you drive or take public transit? How about a cell phone, I am sure you have one of those.  If you have a child, or are going to do you plan on getting an ultrasound?

here is a small list of an even smaller fraction of items that are made with oil. Ink (for your printing needs),Fuel,bicycle tires (I assume you ride a bike), dresses,mops,tool box,luggage,sun glasses, detergents,tents, pillows,antifreeze, guitar strings,speakers,bandages,cameras,contact lenses,artificial limbs, roller skates,trash bags.

I don’t mean to put you or the causes you fight for down, but I always wonder if everyone knows how needed oil is? It is not just something that “fuels” the economy it is something that we use in our every day lives. I challenge you to live one day oil free…