Falling oil prices are making life miserable for Canadian producers and everyone else connected to the energy sector. But the global glut and continuing price weakness may have a silver lining: It makes it easier for Western governments to wean themselves off the crude pumped out of the ground by authoritarians, despots and armed thugs. And one of the key beneficiaries would be Canada.
That's the latest reason why Leif Wenar, an ardent campaigner to stop the flow of cash from unwitting consumers to scoundrels in other parts of the world, sounds so optimistic these days about changing the rules that have enabled what he views as the theft of billions of dollars of resources by tyrants from their own people with the complicity of Western political leaders.
"The window of opportunity is opening wider and wider," says Prof. Wenar, author of Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence and the Rules That Run the World, a broad examination of how resource loot has fuelled everything from the Cold War and Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionist urges to the rise of the Islamic State and the current refugee crisis.
When he began his research a decade ago, all the talk was of peak oil, climbing prices and the increased leverage of key players such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which rank high on his must-avoid list. Today's world looks dramatically different, thanks to the shale oil and gas revolution, the price collapse and the spreading threat from extremists financed directly or indirectly by oil cash.
"The world is awash in the stuff now. And it makes change so much easier," Prof. Wenar, chair of philosophy and law at King's College London, said in a phone interview.
"We've got a lot of our own energy. We don't need Saudi oil. That's a big change. Also, the actors that would stand in the way of my proposal are seriously weakened because of the low price. Big Oil is in a bad way right now."
The 50-year-old founder of Clean Trade, a campaign to end global trade in natural resources peddled by bad actors across the Middle East, Africa, Russia and a couple of its former satellites, will bring his compelling philosophical, historical and legal arguments to an audience Thursday evening at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.
"North America would have to be energy independent for us to stop buying authoritarian oil," he said, noting that U.S. presidents since the oil embargo days of the early 1970s have made such a commitment.
"My view is that it's better to buy oil from Canada than from actors abroad who are spreading violence and extremism in ways that are going to threaten our fundamental national interests even more as time goes on."
Prof. Wenar, an American, is well aware of popular U.S. opposition that helped derail the Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring Canadian oil south of the border. And he saw how heated the pipeline debate in Canada has become during a recent talk at McGill University in Montreal.
But until we live in a world where all energy needs can be met from renewable sources, he would take oil sands product over oil "stolen" by tyrants from their people any day. In other words, so-called "dirty oil" trumps "blood oil" every time.
Audiences react with shock when he points out that "we're running the global trade system using the same rule [for oil] that we used to use [to justify] slavery and colonialism and territorial conquest. And then when you tell them that it's been our dollars as consumers that are helping to fund all these foreign crises in oil states for the last 40 years, they have another shocked reaction."
He notes that from gasoline purchases, U.S. households sent an average of $275 (U.S.) to authoritarian regimes in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.
He points to the ban on trade in blood diamonds and tougher international rules covering bribery as examples of progress in reining in unlawful behaviour. But he acknowledges that geopolitical reasons make it impossible to cut off such key producers as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Then there is the likelihood that China, still a voracious energy customer, would simply step in as a replacement. "Blood oil" accounts for about half the world supply.
Prof. Wenar proposes instead a gradual reduction of purchases over a period of years from the major suppliers, with the carrot of resuming trade if the respective rulers reform their governance practices.
"The economics is easy. The politics is hard."