STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Debate rages over word choice: tarsands or oilsands?

Posted by mhudema on January 18, 2008

A heavy hauler pulls away from a hydraulic shovel at the Muskeg River mine site approximately 75km north of Fort McMurray. (CP / Adrian Wyld)A heavy hauler pulls away from a hydraulic shovel at the Muskeg River mine site approximately 75km north of Fort McMurray. (CP / Adrian Wyld)

Updated Thu. Jan. 17 2008 8:58 PM ET

The Canadian Press

EDMONTON — Canada’s environmentalists and oil industry executives are playing a name game with what they want people to call the source of the sticky black bitumen that is processed into crude oil — tarsands or oilsands.

What’s at stake? The hearts and minds of the public, who in turn pressure governments to impose higher environmental standards for the growing number of multibillion-dollar bitumen extraction projects.

“We’re in the business of producing oil, so we feel that the term ‘oilsands’ is the most accurate depiction of what business we’re in,” says Alain Moore, spokesman for Syncrude Canada, the largest player in Alberta’s bitumen recovery business.

Environmentalists disagree. They paint the huge energy projects as a rape of the landscape and a major source of global warming emissions. Greenpeace activist Mike Hudema says “tarsands” is more accurate because bitumen is nothing like conventional oil and neither is the method used to take it from the ground.

“Most of the existing operations are strip-mining huge areas using methods very similar to what is used in coal recovery,” said Hudema.

“I definitely think that it needs a different term to convey just how dirty and just how energy-intensive these projects are.”

It take up to five times as much energy to process oilsands into a barrel of synthetic crude as it does to recover one barrel of conventional oil, said Hudema.

“You’re looking at a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions and thee to five barrels of fresh water for every single barrel of oil produced.”

Bitumen deposits have been found in more than 70 countries, but Canada and Venezuela are known to have three-quarters of world’s reserves.

Oil has cache with its price tag in the US$100 per barrel range. Tar, not so much _ it’s the stuff you have to scrape off your shoes after crossing a newly paved road on a hot day.

As Canadians become more caring about environmental issues, the stakes are pushed higher when it comes to the choice of words. And groups likes Greenpeace are making this point in a very public way, holding demonstrations to speak out against the “the tarsands industry.”

Oilpatch historian David Finch says the term oilsands started to became more popular in the early 1950s when people were trying to figure out how to process bitumen.

“They said, `OK, primarily for public relations purposes, let’s just call it oilsands from now on,”’ said Finch.

“Oilsands is a less volatile phrase, so people who are concerned about the pollution that is happening in the Fort McMurray area, they call it the tarsands.”

“The people who want to talk about its good side call it the oilsands.”

An official with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says from an industry perspective, there’s not much difference.

“I think it’s probably just an English discussion that we’re having,” says association vice-president Greg Stringham.

The energy industry has “migrated” towards the term oilsands over the last 20 years, but Stringham says there’s no particular motive.

“It hasn’t been for any political or public relations kind of perspective,” he said.

“It’s just because it was more understandable by the public and by the investors that companies were producing oil from this, they weren’t producing tar.”

For the record, scientists and energy expects agree that the most accurate term is “bituminous sand,” but since that’s unlikely to catch on, the name game rages on.

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