A Roman Catholic bishop for the Fort McMurray area is correct in raising moral concerns over oilsands development, and obliged to do so. However, far from being as black and white as Bishop Luc Bouchard presents it, the ethical debate is as murky as the northern muskeg.

In an online pastoral letter, the head of the Diocese of St. Paul, questioned the “moral legitimacy” of the rapid development of the oilsands, saying the destructive effect is against God’s plan for the Earth.

“The moral problem does not lie in government and industry’s lack of a sincere desire to find a solution; the moral problem lies in their racing ahead and aggressively expanding the oilsands industry despite the fact that serious environmental problems remain unsolved after more than 40 years of ongoing research,” said the letter.

“The moral question has been left to market forces and self-regulation to resolve, when what is urgently required is moral vision and leadership.”

Bouchard’s message is consistent with the teachings of the church, and its history of advocating on behalf of the environment. Just as the body is viewed as the house of the soul, so too is the Earth seen as a gift to be cherished and protected.

He also captures the right tone by recognizing the efforts industry and government have made to develop responsibly.

But where Bouchard fails is in his not acknowledging the enormous social benefit generated from oilsands development.

Canada’s general abundance of natural wealth is a gift. The development of the oilsands is no different than other natural blessings like forestry, fishing, minerals and other resources we’re so fortunate to own. Oilsands development heats our houses, but also puts food on tables that might otherwise be empty. It offers jobs to unemployed workers from all regions of the country. A good many of Bouchard’s 55,000 parishioners directly or indirectly benefit from this development he wants to put on hold.

Bouchard called for a moratorium on further development until real solutions may be found, but offered few answers.

It would seem his prayers have been answered. A de facto moratorium on oilsands development is already underway because of the global economic crisis, possibly affording time to enter into the Bishop’s debate.

The ethical questions go beyond the environment, and include how the revenue should be spent. Does the oil belong to the generation that develops it? Or is it there for the overall, long-term benefit of society?

A 2006 commentary from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies talks about the “ethical spending” of revenue from the sale of finite resources. As a one-time benefit, the authors argue there’s only one “ethical” way to spend it, and that’s to invest, not splurge it “like a lottery windfall.”

“Today’s people are merely the stewards of those resources and must manage them in the interests of all present and future citizens of the jurisdictions that own them,” says the paper.

Sure enough. But oilsands royalties help educate our young, train the doctors and teachers of the future and in that way are an investment in the future.

Bouchard has reignited a useful debate. It’s up to the rest of us–industry, government, the research-and-development community and every Albertan–to determine the best policies and future outcomes.