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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important, could have been so much better, April 13 2011
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This review is from: Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada's Oil Sands (Hardcover)
To begin with, I'd like to acknowledge that Levant's book is full of interesting and useful information about the social, economic, and political world of oil. He makes some strong arguments that Alberta's oilsands aren't nearly the villain that many make them out to be. But he weaves his research together with a logic that is at times convoluted and sometimes seems to miss the point completely.

Early in the book, Levant lambastes advocacy groups who applied so much pressure to Talisman Resources that the company eventually pulled out of Sudan. He notes that Talisman had done much for human rights in this highly corrupt dictatorship and that when they pulled out, it was a disaster for the people, possibly even a factor in the Darfur genocide. Okay, granted. Given this, how does encouraging America to invest in the 'ethical oil' of Alberta's oilsands help places like Sudan? His argument is a valid criticism of overzealous activists, but it doesn't say anything about the oilsands (except perhaps, "Activists have been wrong before, so they could be wrong again," but that doesn't make for a very powerful argument).

Levant's discussion of ethical stock options really left me scratching my head. Useful and eye-opening information, to be sure. But how does the fact that stock companies that claim to be ethical apparently invest in everything from Three Mile Island, a Chinese-Tibetan railroad, and tobacco to Alberta's oilsands further the case that the oilsands are ethical? To be sure, he harnesses this topic as one more way to mock those whom he at various points in the book refers to as "fair trade coffee-drinking, Prius-driving, Green Party-voting, recycler[s] who dabble in vegetarianism," Che-T-shirt wearers, and "bicycle-riding, hemp-wearing investor[s]". But that wasn't the point of the book.... Was it? If he's trying to convince oilsands opponents (or even those who haven't fully made up their mind one way or the other) to support his views, mocking those he disagrees with and reducing them to a meaningless stereotype will do little to support his cause. Unfortunately the book - which could have offered a valuable counterpoint to other views - reads more like a rant to the converted.

I really liked Chapter 9, which went into great detail about ways oilsands companies have improved their processes for extraction, carbon capture, and reclamation. He presents a strong argument that when all factors are taken into account, oilsands oil doesn't have a much bigger carbon footprint than most other available sources. But I was put off by Levant's obvious ignorance of climate science. It seems he did a lot of painstaking research to support his arguments, and he is (rightfully) contemptuous of activist organizations masquerading as science ('Greenpeace is not a scientific organization'). But if he's so supportive of science, why does he have such thinly disguised contempt for human-caused global warming, which has the support of many in mainstream science? Even serious skeptics like Nigel Lawson and Garth Paltridge acknowledge potential dangers of excess CO2 and aim their criticism at the hysteria surrounding global warming and the lack of attention to adaptation rather than at the entire idea that human-generated carbon might influence the climate. Levant, on the other hand, throws in lots of trivializing digs, referring to CO2 as an 'alleged pollutant' and 'plant food' (which, of course, it is - but suppose they can't eat it all?). The part that really got me was his claim that since the vast majority of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is naturally occurring, we needn't worry about the small fraction that is produced by humans. It sounds convincing, but naturally occurring CO2 is in balance with the natural forces that remove it. Everything we add contributes to a growing debt in the atmosphere (as even the deficit continues to grow). If nature can handle CO2, why is it accumulating? To me, Levant's overlooking of this most basic understanding of climate science casts huge doubt on his credibility and claimed alliance with science. I'm not suggesting that boycotting the oilsands would play even a small part in solving the climate problem (whatever that turns out to be), but belittling the whole idea doesn't do much for his general thesis.

Finally, Levant is full of praise for Alberta's relatively strict environmental guidelines, and notes on several occasions that the people of Alberta's many concerns about the oilsands put severe pressures on government and developers to work in a responsible manner. He also notes the monumental strides that have been made in oilsands technology in the past decades. While I agree that many activist groups take things too far, the environmentalists he so decries have played an important role in influencing public opinion such that these changes were deemed necessary.
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Location: Calgary, Alberta Canada

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