Maik Günther, Freie Universität Berlin

Justifying the Making of Markets for Albertan Oil Sands: Discourse, Institutions, and the Case of Ethical Oil

My dissertation project investigates the controversial oil exploitation from oil sands in Northern Alberta, and the social, economic and ethical ramifications stemming from the "biggest industrial development project in the world" (The Guardian, 2013). It asks questions about justification and legitimacy, ethicality and reasonableness in times when negative environmental and societal impacts of producing and consuming fossil resources have become under intense scrutiny, both globally as well as within the North American context.

On what grounds was the decision to exploit that unconventional resource made, bearing in mind its unflattering CO2-balance and severe impacts on the Canadian and global society? What are the arguments that entered the North American discourse, how were they framed and put forward and, if so, whose agenda did they serve? Specifically, the proponents of exploiting the oil sands argue through means of economic reasoning, reference to globalization pressures and the inescapable logic of the market. Moreover, they coined the term “Ethical Oil” by drawing on the sands’ “moral superiority” in comparison to other oil producing countries. Adversely, the opponents primarily refer to the sands’ environmental and societal impact when making a case against them. Likewise, they criticize the fatal signal the exploitation of the sands conveys regarding the necessity to engage in cleaner sources of energy in order to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

This case, evidently, addresses a situation in which conceptions of "right or wrong" and "good or bad" concerning a particular course of action become contested. It denotes a condition that forces the actors involved to question long-held convictions due to the emergence of new and potentially conflicting demands. The case also touches upon the discursive mechanisms and rhetorical strategies that are employed to justify and to make a case for the respective arguments. The polarizing rhetoric on both sides, clearly, has made it difficult to have a reasonable and facts-based discussion about the pace and scale of the oil sands expansion in Canada.

Thus, by deconstructing the discourse around the development of the oil sands, I am trying to account for these aspects: to fully capture the controversy’s main issues and turning points, to better understand the arguments of the respective sides and to expose the patterns of justification that facilitated and sustain the exploitation of the oil sands. I presume this case to represent unique developmental patterns that have and still are transforming North American societies today, e.g. the polarization between social conservatives and progressives in the political arena, the mobilization of specific justification strategies across camps, the hyperbolic rhetoric and the instrumentalization of the media in deepening their opposition, the socioeconomic repercussions of large industrial projects, as well as the power of lobbyists and the neo-liberal imperative that seems to have permeated (North American) political decision making nowadays.