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Rebranding the Rebranding…tar sands are dirty whatever you call them

Josh Mogerman

Posted November 13, 2009

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Ahh, the Canadian tar sands industry. Unhappy that the dirty oil criticisms of their industry are sticking they are to once again change the name of their product rather than fix it.

If it wasn't so irritating, it would be laughable. The industry objects to the use of the term "tar sands" and all the negative baggage that comes with it. Never mind the fact that they used the term tar sands for decades. Never mind the fact that tar sands, actually descriptive of what they are digging and steaming out of the ground at huge environmental expense. The term has been laden with negative connotations, so the industry invented a new term for their product as part of a $25 million PR campaign to clean up the image of their oil.

To their credit, the campaign has been successful in one key aspect. Much to my chagrin, I speak to journalists who have adopted the industry's shiny new term, "oil sands," on a regular basis. But according to a Financial Post story today, entitled "'Oil sands?' Bite your tongue," some in the dirty oil industry don't think that the re-branding goes far enough and wish to clean up the language even more. From the article:

First they were tar sands. Then they were oil sands. Now? Enhanced oil projects. At least according to En-Cana Corp. and its oil-sands spinoff, Cenovus Energy Inc.

The pair want to distinguish their oil-sands operations, which employ the underground and more carbon-intensive steam-assisted gravity (SAGD) drainage method, from the more aesthetically offensive open-pit mining efforts that are accompanied by deadly tailings ponds. As a result, the two firms have ditched the term "oil sands" from their lexicon and replaced it with "enhanced oil projects" or just "oil projects."

"We just thought it was more representative of the nature of Cenovus' assets to describe them as such so that there wasn't any confusion [between SAGD and mining projects]," Mr. Ferguson said after EnCana and Cenovus unveiled their preliminary 2010 budgets.

Avoid confusion? Confusion is the name of the game for this industry, which uses euphemisms like "the patch," modernization, and tailings ponds to downplay the damage that they are doing. But more importantly, it looks a bit like they are co-opting or hiding behind the name for a different oil industry technology. The term "enhanced oil" is already associated with "enhanced oil recovery," which relates to the use of pressurized gas to access oil deep in existing wells. It is a technology already in use in the United States and just last week the Midwest Governor's Association put out suggested regulations and a plan to pipe CO2 from coal-fired power plants to the American Gulf coast where it would be sequestered while revitalizing existing oil wells.

It seems an obvious effort to dilute the differentiation of bitumen from more traditional petroleum products.

"Oil projects?" What does that even mean? (I guess that is the point.)

And "enhanced oil?" What is it enhanced with? I mean, besides tons of sulfur, heavy metals, and all that extra global warming pollution?

Words matter. And thankfully, there are plenty of folks out there who agree. The Financial Post article quotes an Associate Professor from the University of Alberta's school of business:

"Rebranding works best when it comes with a lot of changes," he said. "Taking the exact same product and giving it a new name and without explaining what the value is or how it has changed isn't likely to be very effective."

And despite protestations to the contrary, the tar sands industry just hasn't made the sort of changes that are likely to convince anyone that the world's largest industrial project is anything but dangerous and polluting.

The companies pushing for this change in the energy lexicon are doing so to represent a difference in technology----piping steam into the ground vs. strip mining. The steam folks seem to feel that their products are unnecessarily tainted by images of the massive tar sands strip mines that literally go to the horizon in parts of Alberta. Instead, their technology melts the bitumen where it sits in the ground. But this extraction technique is rife with problems too. It pollutes more water and consumes significantly more energy than the strip mines; actually compounding the global warming pollution and water contamination problems that are at the core of concerns over this fuel source. An effort to somehow wrap themselves in green, or intentionally opaque, language is simply a marketing excercise to alter perceptions and avoid fixing their product.

Imagine the late, great TV pitchman Billy Mays shouting, "New enhanced oil projects. They're tar sands, but with SAGD to make them even cleaner! And now, they're strip mine free with even more greenhouses gases for you! If you call in the next 15 minutes we will include some super-absorbent "shammies" too! They are great for sopping up contaminated water tables..."


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