The dictionary defines "ethical" as behaviour consistent with agreed principles of right and wrong. The late Canadian philosopher G.A. Cohen believed that these principles tell us "what we ought, or ought not to do."
Filmmaker Peter Mettler's helicopter shots in Petropolis show the oil sands as a giant black spill covering vast expanses of land - which, with respect to the natural world, is aesthetically terribly wrong at the very least. But it could be far worse.
What if, as scientific studies and activists tell us, it's true that there are higher than normal toxins in the Athabasca River around the oil sands, and that these elevated toxins harm indigenous peoples' hunting/fishing food sources and cause health problems, including increased cancers; that 34,000 tonnes of oil sand-related particulates fall every year near the Suncor and Syncrude facilities and that, if these fine particulates were released in a single incident, it would be the equivalent of a major oil spill; that the oil sands are a fast-growing source of Canada's industrial greenhouse-gas emissions and that Alberta expects a 58-per-cent rise above 1990 emission levels by 2020, thus increasing our globally irresponsible emissions.
It's unlikely the oil industry will finance independent studies to damn itself. And no comprehensive assessment of the oil sands has ever been done. It would be foolhardy to permit new or expanded work in the oil sands until the effects are studied and regulated by non-industry bodies. If the oil sands are indeed hurting indigenous communities, if they are spewing toxins, if they are tantamount to a major oil spill yearly, then they are unequivocally unethical, and something we ought not to do.
If they prove to be, or made to be, benign for people, the environment and climate change, then the public revenue from this windfall should become an investment fund that would convert petrodollars into stocks and bonds and use revenue to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth for future generations, and a social safety net for the day the oil sands run dry.
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