August 14, 2010

The Term Tar Sands

Oilsands consultant, Andrew Martin suggests that the “Blair Report,” Sidney Blair’s 1951 report on the Alberta Bituminous Sands, “determined” that the tarry, sandy substance found in abundance in the north east of our province should be called oil sands and not tar sands, a term Martin says is “unacceptable to government, universities, geologists, and industry.” (See “Greenpeace would do well to come to the table,” The Edmonton Journal, August 9, 2010.)

If Blair made such a pronouncement, I failed to see it in a quick page-by-page scan of the document. I did note that he doesn’t call the tarry, sandy substance tar sands, but neither does he call it oil sands. He calls it bituminous sands, which is hardly surprising since the actual name of the report is “The Development of the Alberta Bituminous Sands.”

There’s no question that the Alberta government prefers the term oil sands. In defending its position the government says “Oil sands is a more accurate term because bitumen is a substance that contains oily sand,” and that “It makes sense to describe the resource as oil sands because oil is what is finally derived from the bitumen.” (By which logic we should call cucumbers pickles and eggs omelettes.)

But the government is much more tolerant of the term tar sands than Martin let’s on. In a 2008 document entitled Alberta’s Oil Sands: Resourceful, Responsible there’s the following: “Regardless of the name, oil sands and tar sands describe the same thing.”

Furthermore, do those who perceive the term tar sands as a pejorative understand that none other than Karl Clark, the man regarded by many as the father of the oil sands industry, used the term and continued to do so long after the Blair report appeared? In one of the last letters Clark ever wrote--15 years after the Blair report appeared--he reminisces with an old friend: “Working at the tar sand problem has been good fun throughout. The part I remember most is the early years when you and I were together on the river and in the laboratory.” And to whom is he writing this? None other than his old friend and colleague Sid Blair--yes, he of the Blair report.

So to say the term tar sands is incorrect, unacceptable, and pejorative and to cite the Blair Report as support for this position, as Martin does, is at the very least, well, incorrect and unacceptable.

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