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Tar sands or oil sands?

You’re either passionately for energy megaprojects or against them. The divisions are as basic as the terminology.

By David Wilson

So, what is it?” I asked former moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps. “Tar sands or oil sands?” He smiled and replied, “It depends on where you are and to whom you’re talking.”

Phipps was part of a delegation assembled by the ecumenical justice group Kairos that travelled to northern Alberta last spring. They went to see first-hand the mammoth projects squeezing oil out of the bitumen-soaked ground near the Athabasca River and to assess their impact on the region’s population and environment.

Larry Krotz, a regular contributor, met up with the delegation and did some exploring of his own for this month’s cover story (“Black gold or green disaster?”). As you’ll find, Krotz discovered that there’s no middle ground when it comes to discussions about the energy megaprojects in this part of the country — you’re either passionately for or against them.

The divisions are as basic as terminology. As Phipps explained, if you live in Calgary or Fort McMurray and depend on the megaprojects for your livelihood, the preferred term is the gentle sounding “oil sands.” If you live downriver or downwind from the projects, or if you object in principle to defacing the landscape in the name of fossil fuels, it’s the messier, more ominous-sounding “tar sands.”

For the record, Kairos uses “tar sands” in its official communiqués and position papers, but carefully navigates a path just slightly to the left of centre, acknowledging that the issue is as laden with complexities as the soil along the Athabasca River is with heavy crude. As Kairos sees it, the exploitation of the region’s oil potential underscores the need for a sustainable national energy policy. Representatives hope to press home that point in meetings with federal politicians this fall.

In the first draft of his story, Krotz used the term “oil sands,” which presented us with an immediate dilemma. If that’s the term we print, are we suggesting we support oil development in the region lock, stock and barrel? Or if we change it to “tar sands,” are we indicating that we oppose the biggest industrial project on the planet — and the economic benefits that accrue from it?

We found the answer in Krotz’s story itself.  While clearly dismayed by what the project is doing to the northern Alberta environment and the Aboriginal people who live there, Krotz is equally alarmed by our apparent inability to carry on a civil and informed discussion about it. The underlying issues — whether it is wise to invest hundreds of billions into a polluting resource whose days are numbered, or whether we can afford not to — are too important to our collective present and future to be smothered by dogma or ideology of any stripe. The important thing is the conversation, not the words.

So don’t read much into the fact that we use “oil sands.” But read a lot into the fact that we’re running this story. The time has come for the oil sands issue to move from northern Alberta onto the doorstep of every home in the nation.

• Perhaps you followed our on-the-spot reporting from the 40th General Council on this website. Next month, visit this site for the second part of our two-phased Council coverage. It will include an interview with the new moderator and analysis of major decisions. 
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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