“Tar sands” or “oil sands”?

My piece for The Economist on the tar/oil sands is out.

(“My”, by the way, is always a bit of a stretch for an author of an Economist piece, at least in my experience. In this instance, brilliant editors Patrick Lane and Oliver Morton, and Ottawa correspondent Madelaine Drohan, among others, were all heavily involved, too.)

One of the questions I’ve been getting is about the use of “tar sands” versus “oil sands”.

I think it’s a silly question. Yes, I know some Albertans, especially those working in the oil industry, don’t like the term (“It’s not tar!” or “It’s a loaded term!” are common cries). And, being more accustomed to “oil sands” when I write for others, I can sort of see the point. No question, “tar” sounds a tad filthier than oil — which I think sounds a bit dirty anyway.

But, really. People should get over themselves. The stuff looks more like tar than oil. The easiest way for tar-sands boosters to lose the battle over what they’re called is … to get upset about what they’re called. The best way for them to win it is to make “tar sands” a neutral term by using it themselves.

And think of the journalist’s plight. In a story about oil, it’s already difficult to find synonyms to prevent tedious repetition. “Oil”, “crude”, “petroleum” (all of which mean slightly different things, too), and so on. In a 3,000 word story about the tar sands, that “tar” lightens the load a little.

The other complaints about the piece so far have been from people saying that it’s unfair. That’s from both greens and oil execs. So we must have got something right.


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