Oily Dirt

EDMONTON – Calm discussion of the environment nowadays is about as plausible as reasoned dialogue on witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. Consider the hyperbolic debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would funnel oil from Canada’s Athabasca tar sands in northeastern Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Alberta government – and the oil companies that influence it – would upgrade “tar sands” to “oil sands,” apparently thinking that a better name somehow silences environmental critics. Environmentalists opposing the pipeline refer, with equal deftness, to “dirty oil.” Bystanders understandably wonder which is worse – awkward rebranding or awkward puns.

Neither gaucherie is entirely deceptive. The tar sands are hundreds of square kilometers of bitumen, a viscous and corrosive tarlike deposit. Bitumen permeates the dirt at the surface or, where thin layers of compost and sediment intervene, somewhat below basement levels. Grasping a handful of dirt from a riverbank does leave one’s hand more oily than tarred, and the greasy dirt is somewhat sandy.

This highlights the real deception by both sides. Awkwardly for oil companies, bitumen is not ordinary oil. Awkwardly for environmentalists, Nature put corrosive bitumen in the dirt. Had BP spilled hundreds of billions of barrels of bitumen across hundreds of square kilometers, environmentalists would rightly demand that no expense be spared to rid the dirt of every trace of oil. A double standard applies, because, whatever Nature does is, well, natural, and therefore good.