Category: oil sands

“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.



Nasty stuff

I’m a bird lover. In fact, I’m just about to go for a daily lunch-time break in Derbyshire’s Goyt Valley to look for some birds. But the campaigning against the oil sands of Canada on the grounds that the toxic tailings lakes are killing birds is getting silly. There are plenty of serious threats to birds: vicious, murdering predators (aka “domestic cats”) are one. So are skyscrapers, windmills, cars and — above all — the destruction of habitats and the spread of pesticides.

Two major incidents in the oil sands in the past two years have killed about 2,000 birds. The industry says the oil sands kill 65 birds a year. Some people say — probably with good reason — that the figure could be much higher, around 2,000 a year.

But consider:

  • In the UK alone 55 million birds are killed by cats each year.*
  • Buildings murder more than half a billion birds in the US each year.
  • Cars and pesticides kill 80 million and 67 million birds in the US each year, according to Treehugger.
  • And windmills annihilate about 30,000. (The last three stats come from the same link as above.)

There are plenty of reasons to complain about the oil sands. And any unnatural bird death should be lamented. But let’s get some perspective.

*LEND A HAND ON THE LAND! Please join me in my daily battle to keep cats out of bird habitats, such as my back garden.

Iraq… the oil sands… and the gas glut

I’m busy. In addition to editing the ever-expanding Petroleum Economist and its excellent new channel on unconventional energy (called, imaginatively enough, PE Unconventional), I’ve four major writing projects on the go.

  • A long piece for The Economist on the tar sands (or oil sands, if you prefer)
  • An in-depth look, for Petroleum Economist, at Iraq’s ambitions as an oil producer
  • Another take on the global gas glut, also for Petroleum Economist
  • And my book on oil addiction and the decline of the West

The last of these is a weekend and weekday 5am-7am project. The early starts are the only hours I can find when my children aren’t commanding space, time, and energy. (**I’m not complaining. Frankly, they’re more interesting.**)

The usual requests: if anyone wishes to contact me about stories, you know where to find me.