Unethicull Oil: What Alberta's Wolf Cull Plan Tells Us About Canada's Oil Addiction

DeSmog recently sent a team to the tar sands region of Alberta to investigate the proposed government plan to systematically kill off the province’s wild wolf population in a supposed effort to recover dwindling caribou herds. The proposed cull has been widely criticized internationally for placing the interests of industry above the interests of the public and the public’s stake in the responsible management of Alberta’s resources, environment and wildlife.

Along our journey we discovered the proposed wolf cull bears a striking resemblance to another ploy designed to protect the interests of the oil and gas industry: the “ethical oil” campaign. 

Here are 3 basic points of resemblance between the two:

1. The Bait-and-Switch: Both the wolf cull and the ethical oil campaign share a deceptive bait-and-switch strategy.

The Wolves:

For the wolf cull the bait comes in the form of the euphemistic catchall term, ‘wildlife management,’ used to discuss caribou recovery in Alberta. Sure, most people want caribou to survive and will favor a wildlife management plan designed to save the province’s caribou. Nobody likes wild species going extinct, right?

And the switch: in order for this management plan to work, we’ll have to sacrifice another of the province’s wild species, the wolf. And, as a hidden cost, we’ll be choosing to ignore more effective alternative remedies to caribou declines, like habitat protection, for instance.

The Oil:
DeSmogBlog’s Emma Pullman has done a great job working through the bait-and-switch tactics of the ethical oil campaign. The bait here is clear: access to an ‘ethical’ fuel source, one that is produced in a responsible, democratic context where women enjoy the full gambit of human rights.
The switch, however, is enormous: it comes at the cost of one’s support for the dirtiest fuel source on the planet. Unconventional oil from Canada’s tar sands is the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in Canada, is a tremendous source of industrial pollutants to the nation’s pristine air and water, and is a major contributor to the earth’s warming climate – a problem that has direct consequences for the world’s poorest and most disenfranchised peoples
2. Oversimplification: The bait and switch tactic relies on more than clever phrasing, however, and rests heavily on the oversimplification of complex problems.
The Wolves:
The government, on both the provincial and federal level, has struggled with the issue of caribou declines in Alberta for decades. It is widely accepted that caribou declines in Alberta are directly associated with increases in industrial development. Across large portions of Alberta, conventional oil and gas activity encroaches on wildlife habitat, and now unconventional oil and gas extraction is accelerating rapidly. The discovery of these resources requires seriously destructive exploration techniques, such as the creation of ‘seismic lines,’ long series of lines that crisscross thousands of kilometers of forest. Once clear-cut, surveyors use explosives along these lines in their search for new fuel deposits.
This exploration strategy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unconventional fossil fuel production and the disappearance of Alberta’s once vast caribou herds. After deposits are located, roads, pipelines and well pads are built to service the coming years of industrial activity. These kinds of activities are severely disruptive to the existence of caribou, a naturally skittish animal.
When it comes to caribou declines, scientists have placed the blame squarely on the expansion of these destructive industrial activities. Yet the government, relying on the public’s lack of knowledge of these things, has shifted that blame to the wolf, a natural caribou predator. The government stands by this scapegoat strategy, even though international scientists have proven wolves are not to blame and that caribou only make up a small fraction – 10 percent – of the wolf’s diet.
The Oil: 
In a similar way the ethical oil campaign relies heavily on the oversimplification of oil production and oil politics. This campaign sets up ‘conflict oil’ as a classic straw-man target. According to the argument ‘conflict oil’ from unstable nations like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela fuels the corrupt internal politics of these despotic regimes, where basic human rights are not protected. In comparison, Canada’s ‘ethical oil’ is produced in a responsible, democratic nation, where the rights of the people and the environment are given high priority.
The oversimplified comparison of conflict oil and ethical oil is one that ignores all the ways in which tar sands oil has corrupted the politics, policies and processes that constitute Canada’s so-called ‘ethical’ character. The conflict oil ‘straw-man’ also overlooks the relationship between conflict regimes and oil production.

Ezra Levant, creator of the Ethical Oil Institute, likes to suggest that 'God gave most of the oil to the world's bastards' suggesting they were corrupted regimes before the discovery of oil. But as we're learning first-hand in Canada, maybe it's the oil that corrupts and not the other way around.
Levant also skirts around the fact that the same multinationals  - Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total, to name a few - producing oil in Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are producing oil in Alberta. The ‘ethical’ oil tag line also clouds over Canada’s role in quashing important international environmental treaties to keep oil production running at an all-time high - to sell to conflict regimes like China.
3. Misinformation: Finally, both the bait-and-switch strategy and the oversimplification of these issues relies on one final element – misinformation. 
The Wolves:
The very idea that wolves can be held responsible for caribou declines, or that reducing wolf populations is enough to help the caribou recover, is based on misinformation, plain and simple. In 2005, when the province’s then caribou recovery team put out a document recommending the government place a temporary moratorium on land acquisitions in areas where the caribou were in danger of local extinction – the Alberta government blatantly refused the recommendation (pdf pg 3) and promptly disbanded the team.
Since then, with the industry-laden Alberta Caribou Committee in place, recovery strategies have put an un-due emphasis on ‘changing predator prey relations,’ in a corrupted effort to dumb down knowledge of tar sands’ environmental impact. This industry-guided misinformation campaign has not only provoked the demise of the caribou but now threatens to wipe wolves clean from the province. All of this is done to protect the reputation of the tar sands and the credibility of the government’s commitment to its expansion.
The Oil:
The most basic misinformation component of the ethical oil campaign is its so-called ‘grassroots’ foundation. DeSmog’s Emma Pullman did excellent work exposing the campaign’s ties to the Harper government and conservative political strategists, showing 'ethical oil' is not grassroots but astroturf. The Harper government has the highest stakes in the ethical oil sands game – pulling in more annual profit from the tar sands than even Alberta. 
Secondly, the ethical oil campaign’s three basic lines of argument – that the Canadian government is ethical in its treatment of its people, its women and its environment – are all fabulously unfounded claims. Canada has never regressed as much on these three fronts as it has since the Harper government came into power. 
That we may be better in some of these areas than, say, the Saudis, is up for further discussion: some might suggest that the Harper government’s policies regarding independent science, freedom of speech or women’s rights in Canada have been down right oppressive, dictator-style. So to think that Canada might be patting itself on the back for being better than the world’s corrupt petrocracies seems to be little cause for celebration.
Having someone tell you you’re the lesser of two really undesirable evils hardly warrants an ‘ethical’ badge. If anything, the ethical oil campaign should be seen as a Canadian challenge. If we really want to call ourselves ethical, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Image Credit: Neven Bjelić


The message gets lost with all the directions you want to go, and you are trying to convince an increasingly attention deficit world.

I’d redo your video concentrate on just the wolf cull and who’s driving it.  Wolves only eat Caribou 10% of the time is an important scientific statement… but its late in your video. I’d launch the video with that statement instead of a long glimpse of industrial\natural damage.  (In many respects we are immune to that kind of visual message.)

Those company logos are mighty small in your video too.  Think BIG.  I want to see that company logo front and center with a dead wolf.  If I can’t see suffering next to the Syncrude logo, you’re not doing it right.

As for Ethical Oil, that is a separate problem.  In the big picture its just one more slam against oil somehow being ethical.  I wouldn’t tie the two together in your central message.

Perhaps you should have separate videos?  One could talk about wolves another talking about ethical oil.  A Wolf cull is only a small small part of the ammunition that you can use against Ethical Oil.  Frankly, probably not the biggest.

With separate messages different articles can be more easily picked up by different organizations.

Separate the material and save the wolves.

Even though I agree with some of your criticism, oilman, I think it’s worth pointing out that Carol is a grad student, not in film studies or marketing, but in philosophy. Not sure how much help she got from Desmog, but short of doing a remake of The Grey, in which Liam Neeson is killing wolves from helicopters festooned with Syncrude and Exxon logos, I think they did alright, considering their resources, of exposing the problem, distilled into 11 minutes.

Dear AnOilMan and Peter Moss,

I want to thank both of you for your encouragement and constructive criticism. Its great to know that my articles are sparking thoughtful dialogue on important topics.

I agree that there are down sides to discussing the wolf cull and the ethical oil campaign in tandem, but I also see the benefits. Discussing the problem with the caribou and the wolves without the larger oil-production context they are occuring within would be problematic. And I think the ethical oil campaign clearly demonstrates how ideological the battle field about these matters has become.  While we spend our time talking about whether bitumen is ethical or not, there are many things we are not talking about - climate change, water contamination, poor return on energy invested, corrupted profits made by the Harper and Alberta goverments, cancer rates in Fort Chip, fractured communities and the disastrous effects the tar sands have had on wildlife.

The wolf cull - and the problems with the boreal forest and wildlife that it points to - is a concrete example of just how bad tar sands production is for those who don't stand to make a tremendous profit off of it, and for those who live, or used to live, from the richness of the land. It is good to use concrete examples because it keeps the argument grounded. 

The ethical oil campaign isn't grounded - its all rhetoric. And when you enter the discussion at that level, you are reduced to engaging at the lowest common denominator - one set by Levant himself. His arguments are sensational and well-crafted, but vacuous. One thing we've learned from the past is that this kind of strategy might win in the short term, but will become worn in the long run.

The environmental movement, I think, has done itself a disservice by relying on forms of sensationalism. People have come to almost immediately distrust the sensational. So, AnOilMan, while I think that you are right that an oil company icon with a poisoned wolf beside it would be moving, I'm not totally convinced that its a good long-term strategy. While we desperately want to save the wolves, and stop this totally misguided cull, we also want to point to the deeper, systemic problems that led to the cull in the first place. That's a complicated conversation. 

What we're trying to put forward here is meaningful, careful and thoughtful reflection on an increasingly complex subject. This is not the ethical oil way, which reduces complex realities down to simplified and manipulated sound bites. But who wants to do things their way? I, for one, don't. And I think we need to keep the conversation intelligent and future-oriented. How can we do things better? And who would deny that we can't do things better?

Thanks again for getting involved in this conversation. I appreciate all of your incisive comments and am grateful for your continued readership!

I think these forums are a place to discuss the subject at hand and I’m not here to win anything.

In my experience its not hard to Tar and Sand Ethical Oil.

The fact that they say its bad to buy from oppressive regimes, yet we turn around and sell to them really takes the wind right out of the ‘ethical’ sail.

The wolf cull arguement just falls flat compared to that.


Now, I couldn’t vote Wild Rose, but I could vote for this guy.   (Why are the good business people never the ones in charge?) The video outlines how Alberta’s Conservatives have changed laws to the point where a minister can do absolutely anything.  We are talking omnipotent godlike power.  No trial.  No appeal.  Just roll your clock back 400 years and think ‘aristocracy’.

(I’m Liberal, and I vote for David Swann specifically because of his history of challenging Alberta on Climate Change.)

Beauty and Devistation in the Tar Sands.