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Free advice for opponents of the term 'tar sands' -- take a Valium

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Scanners

If you've ever watched the opening scene* of the 1981 Canadian horror movie called Scanners, you know what happens to a typical advocate of wide-open development of Alberta's vast bituminous sands if you happen to use the term "tar sands."

This makes it almost too much fun not to say "tar sands" every time you have the opportunity, although normally I do try to behave myself in this space with something neutral in the current context, say, bitumen sands.

Advocates of the anti-tar-sands point of view think you should say "oil sands," a term they claim is more accurate, or even scientific, although in reality nowadays this debate has on either side less to do with perceptions of accuracy than getting up each others' noses.

I was reminded of this recently when a small joke in this space -- Lone Star State Versus Lone Tar Province -- prompted an extremely agitated response on Twitter by members of the Tory Troll Patrol.

An accompanying picture of an old rail car innocently displaying a sign reading "Alberta Tar Sands" prompted spittle-spraying accusations of Photoshopping. Doesn't look like to me, but I'm not going to lose any sleep if it turns out to be so.

The debate about whether "tar sands" or "oil sands" is the more accurate way to describe Alberta's vast deposits of bituminous gunk goes back at least to the late 1930s. It is far from settled.

If were only talking about accuracy, both points of view have their merits, rather like arguing metric measurements for distance are superior to imperial ones because the former divides arbitrary distances into units of 100 and the latter systematizes approximate distances with which we are all familiar, say, a foot, or, if you own a horse, a hand.

Now, I am sure someone will claim that there's nothing arbitrary about the length of a metre, but, seriously, people, what would be more arbitrary than "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458th of a second"? Please!

However, je digresse. Bituminous sand looks and acts like road tar, which is presumably where it got that particular name. It's saturated with oil, which means oil sands is a reasonable way to describe the stuff too. On that particular question, I'm agnostic.

More recently, though, advocates of, erm, tar sands development in the Alberta government and various industry lobby groups have made it an ideological project to eliminate the term tar sands on the grounds it's pejorative.

It wasn't really, but now they've succeeded at making it so, which makes it far more attractive to many commentators. Moreover, alas, from their perspective, I'm afraid oil sands isn't going to be much better, thanks to the age old tendency of successful euphemisms for unmentionable things coming to mean the same thing as whatever they genteelly replaced.

I give you toilet, water closet, and washroom … an appropriate enough a metaphor, some might argue, under the circumstances.

I await the announcement, indeed, that oil sands enthusiasts have come up with a new term. A couple of approaches suggest themselves.

There's the innocent-sounding acronym, say, PERFUME, for Petroleum-based Energy Resource From Undersurface Muck Extractions. (AlbertaPolitics.ca readers more clever than the author of this blog are encouraged to come up with their own offerings. That's what the comments section is for.)

There's also the Orwellian half-lie, beloved of both our Conservative federal government and our Progressive Conservative provincial government -- naming the process after an irrelevant but positive sounding aspect of the process, for example, "Sand Cleaning And Repurposing (SCA…" No! Wait. Just belay that particular idea!)

(Aside: Until circa 1941, the commander in chief of the United States Navy on U.S. territory was known as CINCUS. You only have to say it aloud to understand the problem with that acronym, drawn forcefully to the USN's attention on Dec. 7 of the year mentioned above.)

Part of why this oil sands campaign is not working -- indeed, is having the opposite effect to that intended -- is the hysterical attitude of those who are conducting it.

Every time a Calgary Herald columnist becomes splutteringly furious lecturing someone on the perfidy of saying "tar sands" the whole trope becomes unintentionally hilarious. Hilarity, of course, encourages repetition, not to mention social media memes.

Advocates of the "oil sands" approach are free to call the sands whatever they like, of course. We're still a free society here in Canada, for the moment, anyway, and may be for a while yet if the price of oil stays low enough.

But they'd really be smarter when they hear "tar sands" spoken just to take a Valium and roll their eyes, instead of trying to call in the Spanish Inquisition!

Otherwise, they've got to understand, all they're ever going to hear is: Tar sands!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

*The rest of the movie is not worth watching.

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