Fossil Fuels are Unethical

On July 11, 2019 there was an exchange between the Hon. Peter Bevan-Baker and Hon. Darlene Compton in the Legislative Assembly surrounding a question by Bevan-Baker about government investment from fossil fuels:

Government funds divest from fossil fuels

A question to the minister: Will the minister commit to ensuring that all provincial government funds divest from fossil fuels?

Ms. Compton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will not commit to that, unless you’re willing to drive a bicycle to work every day. I mean, we have to have fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that.

Ms. Compton: Everyone in this place, except for maybe the hon. Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Change, have fossil fuel vehicles, so it’s pretty hard for me to say that we could do that when everyone in this place is driving a vehicle that needs a fossil fuel.

Leader of the Opposition: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I should perhaps clarify this is not about the personal choices we make. Indeed, I own a fossil fuel car as well. −

Leader of the Opposition: It’s about the value of those investments and what the potential future value will be as more and more fossil fuel investments become stranded assets.

There are a number of places, both jurisdictional and private companies that are divesting in fossil fuels strictly for financial reasons. I’m not talking about any sort of ethical issue here at all, although there may be something attached to that. I’m talking purely from a financial point-of-view for the wellbeing of the finances of this province.

The province invests a significant amount of money and these investments have an influence on developments within and even beyond this province, private prisons and fossil fuels are just two examples of investment practices that are not socially or environmentally responsible, and increasingly acceptable.

A question to the minister: Does the province have a policy to ensure its investments are done in socially and environmentally responsible manners?

Ms. Compton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I cannot say a definite yes to that, but I would be assuming that we would have looked at ethical reasons. I never really thought of fossil fuels as being something that’s unethical, but I guess we have to change the lens that we look through. It’s very hypocritical for all of us to say we’re going to say ‘no’ to everything involving fossil fuels when we’re all still using fossil fuels on a daily basis.

Leader of the Opposition: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Clearly, I don’t think I stated that there was anything unethical about the use of fossil fuels, indeed I own a car. Hybrid car, but it’s still a car and it burns gas.

This was an unsatisfying exchange for several reasons:

  1. Bevan-Baker was asking a question on divestment from fossil fuels for reasons not directly related to their role in climate change; in essence he was suggesting that investing in fossil fuels is a bad investment because the bottom is going to fall out of the fossil fuel market, and the investments will lose value. But then, in the follow-up, things got tangled up with social responsibility, which is an entirely different issue. The effect of the question was thus blunted.
  2. Compton’s “unless you’re willing to drive a bicycle to work every day” comment was unhelpful in a discussion about divestment; to suggest that until we achieve individual net zero we cannot take collective action is disquieting to hear from the person charged with managing the province’s finances.
  3. Both Compton and Bevan-Baker appeared to initially be willing to admit that our use of fossil fuels is unethical, but both backed away from this. That is unfortunate: there’s a clear case to be made for the continued use of fossil fuels to be considered thus. It is possible to label something as unethical and to also act unethically; the two are not incompatible. Unfortunate, yes. Hypocritical, perhaps. But we cannot reserve “unethical” to describe actions only once we’ve stopped taking them.
  4. Investment in detention camps is something to be examined, but invoking this example, in this exchange, was another unfortunate distraction.

Put all this together, and a clear opportunity for important action on fossil fuel divestment was missed by both sides.


Khürt Williams's picture
Khürt Williams on July 17, 2019 - 14:34 Permalink

Peter, Ms. Compton is a politician. Saying “Yes, fossil fuels are unethical” would lead to press headlines that would put her in a very untenable position. She would be held to account to explain her personal choice of vehicle and why her government hasn’t gone 100% green, even if doing so is impractical.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on July 18, 2019 - 05:43 Permalink

Framing this as a question of unethical-or-not was I think shallow and constraining. It was as if the issue were whether fossil fuels were tainted or not, where of course taint spreads by association. I guess it might have been apt (maybe still) to bring in an economist (a financial ethicist?) to talk knowledgeably about what are the effects and practical reasons for buying stock in a business as a social policy (i.e. beyond that the province might be able to sell it later for more than it paid). It's going to be hard to distinguish owning stock from using fossil fuels ethically or in any other way, if we're unsure or on different pages about what owning stock is about and/or does.

Laurent Beaulieu's picture
Laurent Beaulieu on July 19, 2019 - 12:26 Permalink

Mrs Compton is part of the gang of 6 who voted against reducing Carbon emission to 1.2 megatons. She does not believe in Climate change and will do nothing in her portfolio (Finance) to change any of it. Unfortunate situation and it shows how our current government is badly divided along ideology. Compton is more along the lines of Jason Kenney's policies and refuses to discuss any progressive point of view. She's a lost cause.