STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Are they Oil Sands or Tar Sands

Posted by mhudema on January 14, 2008

Word choice reflects attitude toward industry
Archie McLean
For The Calgary Herald
What do you call the sticky black stuff mined near Fort McMurray?Your answer — oilsands or tarsands — probably says a lot about your attitude toward what’s going on up there.

“There’s a bit of a propaganda war going on,” admits NDP Leader Brian Mason.

Mason uses tarsands exclusively. He and most environmentalists believe it more accurately describes what comes out of the ground. But most Albertans, including government leaders, oil execs and this newspaper, use the word oilsands, a reflection of the final product after refinement.

Geologically, they are the same thing, but everyone must choose one or the other.

“You actually can’t be neutral on this phenomenon,” explains Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain, a linguistics professor at the U of A. “Your choice of words gives away how you feel about the issue.”

Dailey-O’Cain likens the linguistic divide to the situation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics refer to the area as the north of Ireland and protestants call it Ulster.

Greenpeace is clearly situated on one side of the linguistic divide. They recently unfurled a massive banner from the High Level Bridge that read: STOP THE TARSANDS.

Mike Hudema, the local spokesman, says it’s a more accurate term.

“Tar is much closer to what you’re getting out of the ground and it conveys almost immediately that it’s a different process than a conventional oil operation.”

Hudema says the word oilsands is industry jargon meant to sanitize an energy-intensive form of oil extraction.

“Tar brought up dark, dirty images, so they changed it to oilsands to better market it both here in Canada and abroad,” he says.

According to oilpatch historian David Finch, the decision was more haphazard.

In 1951, Karl Clark and Sidney Blair, both pioneers in the science of getting synthetic crude from sticky sand, decided to start calling it oilsands, since oil was what they were producing. From then on, it was the term used by the Alberta Research Council.

“Today we put a lot of import on branding and using the politically correct term and we invest it with a lot of emotional baggage,” Finch says. “Whereas then, it was, ‘We’re making oil.’ That was it.”

“They tried to clean it up, but not because they were ashamed of it.”

Finch attributes much of the change in common usage to former Premier Peter Lougheed, who almost always used the term oilsands. By comparison, Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning, who oversaw the opening of the first commercial oilsands operation in 1967, used tarsands well into the 1980s.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Guy Boutilier, whose riding includes Fort McMurray, believes the word tarsands is insulting to the people who live and work in his community.

“When we hear tarsands, we think of tar. But you can’t heat your home with tar, you use oil,” Boutilier said.

Inside and outside the legislature, Boutilier has implored Mason to use oilsands, but with little success.

Both words are still widely used. George Bush has used tarsands, though he certainly did not mean it as an insult. In recent articles, the Washington Post used oilsands, while the urbane New Yorker magazine chose tarsands.

At a recent press conference, Industry Minister Iris Evans referred to the “tarsa–” before stopping herself and saying oilsands.

Chemically speaking, the sand really contains neither tar nor oil. Scientist Karl Clark sometimes called the resource “bituminous sand.”

It’s politically neutral, but not very catchy.

Expect the debate to continue.


One Response to “Are they Oil Sands or Tar Sands”

  1. Guy Boutilier is an ineffective blowhard. When he worked as Minister of Alberta Environment he told staff to hire one of youth who used to work on a young people’s advisory committee when he was mayor. His old executive assistant also told the department to his partner’s niece.

    He has a reputation of treating public servants like crap and only pursuing opportunities that work to fill his need for publicity. He loves to flaunt his Harvard Masters, yet he cannot run an organization. Just ask the leaders or staff of any department he’s ever worked in.

    He cannot understand complicated issues…and he’s been largely ineffective in every ministry he’s had the opportunity to lead.

    How can we enlighten the Fort McMurray area? They are not being best represented by this character. His showing in front of the EUB is but one of many examples of his ineffectiveness. Help us spread the word!

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