(Un)Ethical Oil’s Alleged Concern For Women…

Given recent major actions opposing the tar sands in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, it seems that increased pressure on the Alberta Tar Sands has held oil lobbyists’ feet to the fire.  EthicalOil.org, a site devoted to advancing the ideas of right-wing pundits such as Ezra Levant who has popularized the term ‘ethical oil’ to refer to tar sands bitumen (aka “dirty oil”), has begun using women’s liberation struggles to justify continued extraction and expansion of tar sands oil.

The premise is that supporting “conflict oil” from Saudi Arabia would prop up a regime that is oppressive to women. The underlying motive, however, is not to talk about women’s liberation, but rather to deflect negative attention from the tar sands.

If women’s rights were of genuine concern to EthicalOil.org (and all the individuals that make it possible such as Ezra Levant, Alykhan Velshi, Kathryn Marshall, and their corporate oil buddies) then there would be conversation about the impacts that tar sands extraction has on women.

The tar sands boom has created dangerous jobs with long hours, fostering a culture of alcohol and substance abuse in the off hours. As a result, rates of sexual violence towards women have increased and women working in the industry have reported sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and unequal pay. Gender-based discrimination have also resulted in unequal access to higher paying jobs in communities in the region, and with skyrocketing housing prices and costs of living, there is also unequal access to housing.  Increases in female homelessness exacerbate the challenges faced by women in the area.

But EthicalOil.org ignores the problems that women in tar sands impacted communities face. In fact, the site’s main idea of “ethics” is based on a sense of Canadian superiority as a country which demands women’s rights.  This idea hides some of the blatant facts:

“Since 2006, Harper has cut funding for women’s advocacy by 43 per cent, shut 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices in Canada, and eliminated funding of legal voices for women and minority groups, including the National Association of Women and the Law and the Courts Challenges Program,” writes Emma Pullman, campaigner with Leadnow.ca. Pullman continues to describe the parts of Harper’s agenda that specifically ignore the systemic violence faced by Indigenous women.

Tar Sands mining operations, pipelines, and refineries disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples by violating Treaty Rights, their right to say no  (free, prior, and informed consent or FPIC, which is outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) to industrial activity taking place on their lands. Tar sands projects have affected Indigenous peoples ability to hunt, trap, and continue traditional practices.

Furthermore, while environmental pollution and contamination associated with tar sands projects affects all people, the health impacts on women’s bodies are destructive to the future wellbeing of entire communities as women bear children. Given that the vast majority of communities living downstream from tar sands and most impacted by the pollution are First Nations communities, the tar sands have been called an “environmental genocide” by indigenous peoples.

So if these facts about “Ethical” oil’s impacts on women are so clear, why is EthicalOil.org implicitly calling for a boycott of Saudi oil?

Maybe they are trying to distract us; so, instead of planning how to make housing in Northern Alberta more affordable to women, I am writing a blog to counter EthicalOil.org’s insincere interest in advancing Saudi women’s struggles. Or maybe they are trying to dictate the conversation; so, instead of talking about alternative forms of energy that do not centralize power in large multinational oil companies, I am reacting to EthicalOil.org’s insincere interest in advancing Saudi women’s struggles. Or maybe they have just run out of good ideas, and are now pretending to care about Saudi women’s struggles.

Maybe tar sands opponents have simply done a good job at making right-wing pundits find any ludicrous argument to convince the general public that tar sands oil is “ethical.”

With two mass actions against the tar sands in September alone and another planned for November, all of which have garnered celebrity support and numerous headlines, it is no surprise that EthicalOil.org is trying anything to promote an industry so widely recognized as destructive.

The lesson? When we get attention, they get defensive. And they look silly.

This means that we do not need to waste our time countering their arguments (I am aware of the irony of this comment, given that I just wrote this blog). We can spend our time doing other, more fruitful things. We can organize creative ways to stop large oil corporations from destroying people and the planet. We can come together to demand that oil companies stop exploiting women through the workplace, their communities, and their bodies.

Oil companies and lobbyists may continue attempts to co-opt women’s movements (or others) as excuses for resource exploitation, but regardless, we  can still come together to build a broad base of people demanding climate and gender justice. Once we are united, we watch them expose their own contradictions and develop more poor attempts to justify their actions.


About maryam


maryam is an organizer, writer, and friend based in Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish Territories. She likes bikes, exploring by kayak, and capoeira. You may have seen some of her writing in Canadian Dimensions, Briarpatch Magazine, The Dominion, or this online blog. You can follow her on twitter @maryamaquarium

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