"Tar sands" versus "Oil sands." Rarely has the sobriquet that "words will never hurt you" been less accurate. The label/branding battle is intense (and defines the speaker). If one mentions, "oil sands" the speaker presumably endorses the production of this Alberta-based heavy oil and likely would also describe it as "ethical oil." Conversely, the speaker employing the "tar sands" label wants it viewed adversely—heavy, gummy, generally unpleasant (but perfect for ensnaring migrating birds in pools of goo).
Indeed, the instant identification has been so ubiquitous that when visiting the region, NDP leader Tom Mulcair deliberately used "oil sands" since, he noted, to call them "tar sands" (as he clearly believes appropriate) would have instantly alienated his audience to anything he might say. But as his audience was implicitly hostile (and knew what he really meant), it was a lost effort.
The issue is multifaceted. In essence, it is a pivotal, socioeconomic and foreign policy argument over what manner of energy will power our societies, how it will be obtained, how delivered to customers, and at what cost.
The chain of argument against current/future exploiting this resource begins with the conviction that "global warming" is in process, the consequence of human action, and (if unchecked) will create global catastrophe. A key element in this "warming" is deemed to be carbon dioxide — originating in the consumption of carbon fuels of every type: wood; coal; oil; natural gas. Such consumption must be significantly reduced, indeed, eliminated if possible, through taxes directed against carbon consumption, restrictions on production of any carbon products or their use, environmental rules to hinder (prevent if achievable) production/transportation/consumption of carbon products, and moral suasion to convince citizens that Earth is in the balance.
[ David Kilgour: Use oil revenues to invest in alternative energies instead ]
Simultaneously, carbon critics push "alternative" energy, essentially wind and solar, eschewing nuclear energy (existentially dangerous) and even hydroelectric power (environmentally damaging).
But most unacceptable is production of heavy oil of the type available in Alberta. Those attacking its production cite the costs associated with its production, both financial and environmental, and have generated intense legal/environmental obstacles to hinder its development and notably its transportation through pipelines such as Keystone and Northern Gateway.
But there is also substantial envy involved. Alberta is already too rich as well as being too "conservative" (in Canadian political philosophy) and certainly "too American." Preventing Alberta from becoming richer through taxes and/or production/transportation restrictions is almost a moral imperative among eastern Canada liberals. Thus the NDP-driven demonization of the "tar sands" as creating "Dutch disease" for Canada — a tortured calculation that natural resource exports raising the value of Canadian currency impoverish Canadian manufacturers who now cannot use a low value dollar to boost exports.
But consider some alternative thinking. "Global warming" remains unproved; there are reputable scientists arguing pro/con. Even if it exists, arguably humans are not responsible (geology demonstrates warming/cooling trends over millennium). The ability of humans to reverse the process is marginal — unless we reduced population by 80 percent (a guesstimate) and adopted Stone Age life styles. Truthfully, we can live quite nicely with temperatures slightly warmer (perhaps increasing Canada's growing season?)
Consequently, one rejects the draconian proposals for carbon reduction as needlessly expensive and a massive intrusion on the lives of citizens. We are not going to ride our bicycles/walk in all weathers instead of driving. Nor are the much-touted energy alternatives attractive: if oil sands pools occasionally trap birds, massive windmills slaughter them. Solar energy works best when the sun shines — and unfortunately the unpredictability of wind/sunshine requires traditional backup energy sources. Rejecting nuclear/hydro power just makes the anti-carbonites even more risible.
Thus "oil sands" advocates see the Alberta reserves as an outstanding resource, potentially available for decades. It reduces American reliance on oil from politically questionable regimes. It provides Canada with options other than the U.S. market. The Keystone pipeline kerfuffle is a political campaign artifact — once the U.S. election is over, it will be "full speed ahead."
And doubtless Alberta oil has contributed to making Canadians richer than Americans — a circumstance even better than winning the war of 1812.