Ezra Levant throws down with Greenpeace and Saudi Arabia
But his strident case for Alberta's oil sands could also be an abdication of leadership
Ezra Levant’s take on the oil sands has people talking
Photography by John Gaucher
Ezra Levant is not an energy expert. When he set out to write his latest book, Ethical Oil, “I didn’t know a thing about oil and gas,” he tells an evening crowd gathered at a winter fundraiser for the Alberta Enterprise Group. It’s a startling conceit, given that the book, whose language has since been adopted by newly appointed federal Environment Minister Peter Kent as well as his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, makes a strident case for Alberta’s oil sands.
But Levant is a quick study. His book asks compelling questions: Is a barrel of Canadian oil extracted from northern Alberta’s bitumen belt morally superior to a barrel of crude plumbed from a well in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria? And given the choice, would American consumers purchase oil sands-derived fuel ahead of gasoline refined from OPEC oil?
Yes on both counts, says Levant, a one-time tobacco lobbyist and soon-to-be host on the Sun TV News channel. “Let’s put it all out there on the table,” he says, fidgeting with a BlackBerry before an evening talk at Edmonton’s Westin Hotel. “If you can put ingredients on a bottle of water, you can put ingredients on a gas pump.”
In Ethical Oil, the contrarian author and founding editor of Western Standard magazine adds a moral dimension to a pressing debate under way in Washington, where it has become an article of faith that oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela must be cut. Levant takes aim at environmentalists and activist members of the United States Congress who would scupper oil sands export schemes in the name of cutting carbon emissions, only to import a greater share of oil from dubious regimes in Algeria, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Angola.
Greenpeace and company have done a “masterful” job tarring Alberta’s main export, Levant says. Aggressive campaigns, replete with repeatedly photographed open-pit mines north of Fort McMurray – “oil sands porn” in Levant-speak – have effectively set up a false choice between oil sands-derived fuel and “some fantasy fuel of the future that hasn’t been invented yet.”
“That’s not a grown-up discussion, because I can’t fill up my car with fantasy fuel. I can’t fill up my car with ‘unobtanium’,” the author spits, referring to the fictional energy source at the center of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar.
Levant was in Ottawa promoting Shakedown, his equally acerbic take on Canada’s human rights commissions, when he first decided to stick up for Alberta’s oil sands. He recalls joining a panel discussion on the topic as the token Albertan after arriving early to a speaking engagement. “It was basically me versus 100 people, and they were all pounding away at the oil sands.”
Environmental stats, employment figures, tax revenues – “all my right wing arguments that my buddies in Alberta love” – were met with eye rolls. Not a single person in the room left convinced that oil sands development was a good thing – nobody except Levant, an avowed climate change skeptic. “The problem,” he reasoned, “was that I wasn’t talking to them on their terms. I wasn’t respecting their values.”
In Ethical Oil, he compares Alberta’s energy sector to its global competitors using metrics like environmental responsibility, peace, the welfare of workers and human rights. Oil sands crude is better than Nigerian crude oil, for instance, because widespread flaring of natural gas produced as a byproduct of drilling there is banned in Alberta. The province’s energy sector trumps its Arab counterpart because bitumen royalties fund health care and education while Saudi sheiks use oil money to build palaces.
Buying Alberta oil is a no-brainer by comparison, Levant says. “That just sounds so simple. It shouldn’t be controversial.” His ideas are winning converts in high places. Environment Minister Peter Kent is a fan. The former minister of state and foreign affairs attached a moral value to the oil sands barely a day into his new post, seizing on Levant’s ethical oil ethos. “He didn’t consult me or anything,” Levant shrugs. “He just came out with the phrase.”
In the eyes of Alberta Enterprise Group president Tim Shipton, Levant has done what millions in public relations spending by the provincial Conservatives has failed to achieve. The author has succeeded in changing the oil sands conversation. “He’s effectively created a new lexicon,” Shipton says.
Whether or not American legislators are as eager as their Canadian counterparts to spread the ethical gospel is less clear. Only the industry’s most ardent fans bought the same beggar-thy-neighbor theory spread by some Calgary commentators who claimed the BP Gulf of Mexico blowout and spill made bitumen projects more environmentally safe and less deserving of scrutiny. “I’m doing the opposite,” Levant insists, batting aside the suggestion that comparing Alberta to dodgy oil-producing regimes amounts to an abdication of leadership. “I’m trying to hold them to our standards.”
But he is an artful booster. He spends a good deal of his book vilifying environmental groups, accusing Greenpeace at one point of forming a “loose coalition” with Saudi Arabia in an effort “to protect America from the rise of a more convenient, secure (and far less shady) Canadian source” of energy.
Levant hangs his hat on the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program to show that environmental monitoring in the oil sands is free of blemishes, although the agency was widely discredited by a panel appointed by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice. The oil sands may have been unduly cast as a cartoonish climate villain, but Levant is not above borrowing tactics from those he assails for lying and worry mongering. As the amateur ethicist writes, “There’s nothing wrong with a little hyperbole in the business of political action.”