Meet Harper's oil-sands muse

Senior Politics Writer — The Globe and Mail

Ezra Levant, a lawyer and author of Ethical Oil, is shown in Calgary on Jan. 13, 2011. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Ezra Levant has become an unlikely muse for Stephen Harper. The simple yet provocative phrase he invented - "ethical oil" - which is the title of his new book on the Alberta oil sands, is now part of the Harper Conservative lexicon.

Just like that, Peter Kent, the new Environment Minister, invoked the phrase last week to defend the oil sands; Prime Minister Harper repeated it two days later.

Story continues below ad

Although neither politician has read his book, Mr. Levant couldn't be more thrilled. "Yeah, I feel great," he said in an interview this week, describing this new and unexpected role as muse as "the icing on the cake."

No wonder. The larger-than-life lawyer, author, conservative political activist journalist and former spin doctor has not always seen eye-to-eye with the Prime Minister.

He once famously declared himself as a "Stockaholic" - his way of characterizing the depths of his support for Stockwell Day's leadership of the Canadian Alliance.

Mr. Day's stint as leader did not go well. Neither did Mr. Levant's stint as his communications director. It lasted only 13 weeks - back then he needed to work on his communication skills.

Later, Mr. Levant kept Mr. Harper sweating on the sidelines, taking his time to decide whether he would step aside for the new leader as the party's candidate in Calgary Southwest. Finally he did; Mr. Harper went on to win the riding.

All of this, however, is water under the bridge. Mr. Levant, 38, is a calmer fellow now and back influencing public opinion, having provided the Tories with new language, and a fresh way to sell the much-maligned oil sands and its dirty reputation.

Known more for self-promotion than humility, Mr. Levant considers his book a "debate changer."

"It's tough for Conservatives to defend the oil sands because the traditional Conservative arguments sound a little bit heartless - property rights, money, things like that," Mr. Levant said.

He believes the Prime Minister's characterization of Canada as an "energy superpower" is an ineffective phrase and poor way to sell the country's oil assets. "It doesn't ring true for Canadians," he argued. "First of all, I don't think we really think of ourselves as a superpower. … The Soviet Union was a superpower, you don't want to be like them."

Canadians, he asserted, see themselves as ethical - "People who try and do the right things, sort of the Boy Scouts of the world, the guys who help with foreign aid."

So the argument he poses in his book is really quite simple: Wouldn't you rather buy your oil from a country that respects human rights, workers' rights, peace and environmental responsibility rather than from countries such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran?

"We don't kill gays. Well they do in Iran," said Mr. Levant. "We don't stone women to death. Well they do in Saudi.…"

Although he supports improving the operation of the oil sands, he cautions against comparing them to "some impossible-to-achieve perfection."

It was this way of thinking that led to him to concoct the phrase "ethical oil."

"I was just thinking about what would fit," he recalled. "There is the phrase 'conflict diamonds' and 'conflict-free diamonds' and that makes sense. I get it."

The genesis of the phrase, however, dates back to 2009 when he attended a writer's conference in Ottawa. He was asked, at the last minute, to participate in a panel on the oil sands. Realizing he was the "token Alberta whipping boy," Mr. Levant also knew that after 90 minutes he hadn't convinced anyone in the audience the oil sands were a good thing.

He decided to write a book to try to change some minds.

And he pictured the imaginary small-l liberal - a "twenty-something student at McGill, maybe taking vegetarian studies. Her name is Zoe, she's never been west of Hamilton" - he needed to win her over. "How am I going to talk to her," he asked himself. "Let's win the debate on her terms instead of trying to get her to accept my values."

Not wanting to repeat the same old lines, he purposely avoided contacting the big oil companies. "Instead of looking at right-wing sources, let me read up on Amnesty International …," he said, describing how he pursued his research. He wanted to come up with "new arguments" and "weird comparisons."

Last September, his book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands, hit the stores. It's a "liberal book," Mr. Levant said, from a "right-wing guy."

Mr. Kent, meanwhile, plans to "eventually read Ezra's book as well as the books of people across the environmental spectrum," said the minister's spokesman Bill Rodgers.

The Prime Minister's plans, however, are not clear.

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1