A Bitumen Pit By Any Other Name: The Titular Politics of Alberta's Ticking Carbon Bomb

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Oil Sands or Tar Sands? Actually, They're Neither
by Damien Gillis - The Common Sense Canadian
As the publisher of an online journal focusing on Canada’s environment and resource economy, the issue of what to call Alberta’s oil patch is an increasingly, um, sticky subject.
Do we use “oil sands”, capitulating to the industry’s late but valiant rebranding effort, or keep to “tar sands”, which is how we’ve generally referred to it in the past?

Or, like the Huffington Post and other newer, online publications, float between the two, depending on the story and author – which is what we’re doing more of lately.


Neither oil nor tar

The simple fact of the matter is that viscous, sand-encased substance lying under the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin is neither oil nor tar. Which makes it hypocritical and disingenuous for industry advocates to dismiss their critics for using the word “tar”, while at the same time misrepresenting their product as “oil”.
One thing that substance is most definitely not is sweet, light crude. It’s bitumen. At best, after considerable refining, it will become synthetic crude (or “syncrude”) and various other fuels and petrochemical products. It is never, nor will it ever be oil.
I have always preferred ”tar sands”, not because of its activist connotation, but because I believe tar more closely reflects the defining characteristics of bitumen than does oil. Of course, tar is not a single, naturally-occurring substance – rather “a very thick, black, sticky liquid…used especially for road surfaces”, as Merriam-Webster’s defines it. (On that note, a contractor I hired to patch a leaking crack between the asphalt and concrete perimeter at the rear of my building recommended a bitumen product for the job, which worked like a hot damn).
Says Wikipedia, “Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat. It is black, and a mixture of hydrocarbons and free carbon.” A sticky, black substance often derived from coal or petroleum, which is used to patch roads. Sounds an awful lot like bitumen to me.
All of this matters because Alberta bitumen has a bigger environmental footprint than conventional oil – from the water and energy required to extract it, to the condensate required to dilute it and move it through a pipeline, to the emissions from refining and ultimately burning it. When it spills, like it did from an Enbridge pipeline into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, it can prove a god awful mess to clean up (a misnomer itself, as this Michigan spill will never truly be cleaned up). So confusing bitumen with oil is letting it off the hook for being something quite different.

“Tar Sands” can be such a turn-off

That said, I always want to reach new readers, especially with regards to the vital conversation on Canada’s energy future. And the fact is, the oil industry and Harper government, though late out of the gate, have been highly effective at marginalizing the term “tar sands” and those who use it as left-wing nuts and out-of-touch tree-huggers. I’m not saying they’re objectively right about this. Of course they aren’t, especially with the sort of polarizing language they increasingly apply to anyone who dares question the industry: “radical”, “extremist”, or the most egregious, “eco-terrorist”.
Look, anthropogenic climate change is real. Even the oil industry is acknowledging as much these days. Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River – even the Harper government’s scientists recognize this now. So the notion that raising issues with the oil/tar sands makes one an extremist or even terrorist is as obscene as it is preposterous and only serves to further polarize the nation. For that, the industry and its government partners merit recrimination. Heck, even Conservative ex-PM Joe Clark thinks as much.
Nevertheless, the success of the oil lobby in terms of shifting the language paradigm around Alberta bitumen is a present reality which I feel compelled at least to confront.

American author stymied by oil sands/tar sands debate

Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Tony Horwitz encapsulated the issue on CBC radio’s The Current this past week while discussing his time in Alberta researching a new book. Host Anna Maria Tremonti asked, “When you got to Fort MacMurray, were you saying oil sands or tar sands?” Horowitz replied:

I was new to this topic and was sort of an agnostic on that question, but it quickly became clear to me that saying ‘tar sands’ would tar me as a hostile environmentalist. So, I began to say ‘oil sands’. Now that I’m back here in the US, I have to say most of the conversation, it’s ‘tar sands’ – but it’s a mark of how politicized this issue is that we can’t even agree on what to call this substance.

Environmentalists frame tar sands early on

“Oil sands” wasn’t always the go-to moniker for Alberta bitumen. In a rare coup for the environmental movement, the early rounds of the PR war over Alberta’s massive bitumen deposits went to tree-hugging opponents. The term, “tar sands” stuck in the public consciousness, both in Canada and amongst a growing legion of international critics.
This was the kind of rebranding exercise that is so often the province of “free market” conservatives and their pollsters – like Frank Luntz, who advised the Bush Administration to substitute “climate change” for global warming, in order to make it sound less alarming.
Sometime around the 2009 publication of National Geogrphic’s groundbreaking photo essay, titled “Scraping Bottom”, the oil lobby recognized it had a real branding problem on its hands. The cover story used the term “oil sands”, but the moonscape images it yielded fit perfectly into the environmental movement’s framing of the “tar sands”.
Soon, the industry and its Harper government allies would be racking up “Fossil” awards at annual climate summits, battling to keep the European Commission from slapping a surchage on Canadian bitumen exports (a battle it is losing, as the European Parliament recently recommended extending the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive beyond 2020) and dealing with the Obama Administration’s stonewalling on the Keystone XL pipeline - not to mention heavy-duty opposition to Alberta pipelines proposed to cross BC.

Oil lobby’s PR flacks play catch-up…and quickly

Somewhere in there, the industry got its act together and decided to go public with a multi-million dollar rebranding effort. This included the “Ethical Oil” concept (though you’ll never get any of them to admit a direct connection between this group, the Harper government and the oil industry). But, more importantly, it revolved around a massive advertising campaign – encompassing print, online, radio and television – dousing the Canadian public in saccharine ads extolling the virtues of improved technology, remediated wetlands and indispensable economic benefits. All emblazoned with two words: “OIL SANDS “.
A leaked 2013 Postmedia sales pitch to the industry’s leading lobby, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), offered to manufacture sympathetic news coverage across its national newspaper chain. Not long after this pitch, Postmedia demoted star national energy reporter Mike De Souza through the cancellation of its parliamentary bureau.
This on top of paid speaking engagements for two of the CBC’s most prominent on-air talents, National anchor Peter Mansbridge and pundit and radio host Rex Murphy. Neither of these newsmen and none of these outlets has seen fit to acknowledge any impropriety or ethical conflict in these situations.
So today, a survey of the nation’s leading media publications reveals that essentially all of them have chosen “oil” over “tar”. For Sun News and the CBC, “oilsands” is the most consistent choice – with the occasional “oil sands” mixed in.
The Globe and Mail prefers a space between oil and sands, as does the National Post, though parent Postmedia doesn’t appear to have a national policy on the subject yet, as The Vancouver Sun usually opts for “oilsands”. Meanwhile, CAPP itself uses “oil sands”.

Bigger than Po-tay-to/Po-tah-to

As author Horwitz noted, it’s pretty well impossible to engage in a sound debate about the oil sands/tar sands if we can’t even agree on what to call them.
Defaulting to oil sands may ensure a wider readership for our stories at The Common Sense Canadian, but in capitulating to the oil lobby’s choice of language, I recognize would be helping to legitimize its corporate, PR flack misnomer, the “oil sands.” Moreover, calling it “oil” glosses over the important differences between these two products – from the water and climate issues, to the properties which may very well make bitumen more prone to spills and more difficult to clean up. The consequences of this word choice are far more serious than po-tay-to/po-tah-to.
So how about we split the difference and call them what they really are: The Bitumen Sands?
Maybe not as catchy, but a hell of a lot more honest.

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.
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