Understanding the language of bitumen.

Luckily for Canadian communications people, English is a living language. It is in a state of constant change and usage and there is no tribunal ready to refuse this use or that use of words or forbid the encroachment of another language. There is no authority for English as there is with Canada’s other official language. It is this wonderful flexibility of English that enables copy writers, script writers, pamphleteers, publicists, authors and others to change perceptions of products, processes, politicians and propositions by subtle changes in words. It also leaves Canadian translators struggling with word concepts to meet the demands of l’Office québécois de la langue française. As is often noted, one person’s opportunity is another person’s problem.

This is why what was previously known as Athabasca tar sands is now Alberta oil sands. This change serves multiple masters. Few people know precisely where the Athabasca area of Canada is located but Alberta as a political entity is well understood. Clarifying ownership is the obvious objective.

The change of ‘tar’ to ‘oil’ serves multiple conceptual needs. While surface tar sand deposits are a world-wide geological phenomenon, the Athabasca area appears to have the mother lode. While the tar extracted from the tar sands in North America is not by any stretch oil, neither is it tar. It is bitumen, one of the oldest construction materials known in the world. Bitumen can be heated and distilled for pitch and used for waterproofing. It can be used instead of mortar to lay bricks. It can be mixed with sand and gravel for asphalt. Asphalt is an excellent road-building material. Bitumen can also be put through a highly polluting refining process to make synthetic oil.

Calling tar sands from the Athabasca area ‘heavy oil’ is also something of a stretch. For Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline across British Columbia, the plan is to twin the pipeline with a smaller diameter pipeline that can be used to bring light crude from tankers in Kitimat, B.C., mix this crude with tar sands bitumen and ship the resulting slurry back to Kitimat in a heated, higher pressure and larger diameter pipe.

In the Line 9 proposal in Ontario, the plan is to mix in polymers in Alberta, heat the line at frequent intervals and increase the pressure to push the slurry eastward.

In all of the material about the eastern pipelines, the emphasis is that there are refineries at the seaport terminus of the pipeline. The assumption that many people make from this is that these refineries will welcome the bitumen product to refine. They will not. Most of these refineries would need extensive modifications to handle bitumen. And they would rather not do that.

North American refineries would prefer that bitumen be processed somewhere else where the amount of pollution it causes will not be considered as serious a problem.


Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

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