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Exploring the ethical oil debate

May 17, 2013
Roberta Laurie

When Roberta Laurie’s aunt – a woman she describes as educated and intelligent – described the Alberta oil sands as “ethical,” she knew she had to do something. The conversation came after the 2010 publication of Ethical Oil, the bestselling and controversial book by Canadian lawyer and lobbyist Ezra Levant. In the book, Levant argues that when compared to other crude producers like Saudi Arabia, the Canadian petroleum industry is more ethical based on the environment, conflict, economic and social justice.

“When Ezra Levant came out with his book Ethical Oil, there was a lot of talk about it and it seemed to be changing how people discussed the oil sands,” says Laurie, a writer, editor and educator who lives in Edmonton. “I told my aunt oil sands oil is not ethical.  It’s destroying the environment, it’s destroying habitats, it’s encroaching on wetlands, there are problems with pollution going into the Athabasca River and ultimately we have these problems with these huge tailings ponds. It seems as though these things are being really downplayed.”

After the discussion with her aunt, Laurie took a step back and decided that instead of simply being against everything Levant writes, she needs to evaluate what he’s writing and how it’s being perceived. “Does he have a point, or is he just spinning the facts?” she asks. “Is he using forms of rhetoric to unfairly frame this issue and are people being misled? Or, on the other hand, does it make sense what he saying?”

Seeking answers to these questions led Laurie to the MA in Environmental Education and Communication (MEEC) program at Royal Roads University, where she’s focusing her research on the ethical oil debate. Her thesis, Framing Ethical Oil: Shaping the Canadian Media's Response to the Alberta Oil Sands, received a Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Laurie also recently participated in the first SSHRC Research for a Better Life: The Storytellers challenge. The contest asked students from across Canada to submit their most compelling story pitches describing an innovative, SSHRC‑funded research project being carried out at their institution. Laurie submitted a three-minute video slideshow outlining her project and came among the top 25 in the contest, winning a prize valued at $3,000, an invitation to a special communications workshop at Congress 2013 in Victoria and the chance to deliver a featured presentation at this year’s World Social Science Forum in Montreal.

“I’m really looking forward to networking with other researchers and finding out what everyone else is doing and making connections,” Laurie says of attending Congress. “I think that’s really going to be a lot of fun and very informative.”

“The Storytellers campaign celebrates the talented students from across Canada who have shone a light on the exceptional contributions of the social sciences and humanities through excellence in research communications,” says Chad Gaffield, president of SSHRC. “Their creative and compelling insights into how SSHRC‑funded research is helping to create a better future for Canada and the world are truly inspirational, and effectively illustrate the promise of our future leaders.”

Laurie’s research is exploring how Levant uses framing to communicate his message about the Alberta oil sands and how that framing is shaping discourse within the Canadian media. She has analyzed Levant’s book, looking for recurring themes and exploring how those themes have been framed within a cultural narrative. Two of the themes Laurie has identified are “us versus them” (Canadian oil versus that of other countries) and an attack on activist groups. “He’s not just framing oil as ethical, he’s framing activist groups as unethical,” says Laurie, who is now examining news articles and opinion pieces referencing ethical oil published by major Canadian print media to see if they are picking up the themes or rifting off of them.

“Ultimately, I hope my work will lead to a greater awareness of the effects that framing has on messaging and in that way help people make sense of this complex and often confusing issue,” Laurie says.

Founder of the MEEC program, Prof. Rick Kool, says he’s proud of Laurie’s achievements. He recalls receiving a note from her when she was applying to the program expressing her desire to influence people to be more environmentally aware and involved through her work as a communicator. “Roberta came into the program as an experienced writer and a mature student with a real passion for her work and a desire to make her thesis into something that would have an impact,” Kool says. Clearly, he adds, she has already made an impact.

For Laurie, taking action and delving deep into the debate over the Alberta oil sands is satisfying. She often thinks of historical environmental catastrophes and how she didn’t have a chance to take any action or have any influence, but the oil sands hit close to home and Laurie is eager to add to the dialogue. “This one is in my own backyard and it’s happening right now and really I have to be aware of what’s going on and try to figure out what’s happening and what can be done.”

Two other RRU students are among the top 25 in the Storytellers contest. Doctoral student Cheryl Heykoop created a video based on her research into meaningful child engagement methods for post-conflict truth-telling with children in northern Uganda. Watch Heykoop’s video here. MA in Intercultural and International Communication student Brett Blair produced a video featuring Prof. Robin Cox’s research into child-centered disaster recovery in Canada and the U.S. Watch Blair’s video here.