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.
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. 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.
More recently, though, advocates of 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.
Part of why this oil sands campaign is not working 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.
But they’d really be smarter when they hear “tar sands” spoken just to take a Valium and roll their eyes.
Otherwise, they’ve got to understand, all they’re ever going to hear is: Tar sands!
(Source: David Climinhaga’s full comment at Alberta Politics)