A word about semantics

A recent blog post by Jonathan Chait, in criticizing Fox News’ use of “government option” rather than “public option” to describe a provision of the health reform plan, makes the following observation.

Standard news practice is to simply keep using terms that have come into the public discourse and gained wide usage even if it is not the most technically accurate or neutral term.

That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t make it OK. In the world of energy coverage, there are a lot of terms that are frequently used but aren’t necessarily accurate.

An interesting thing about running a news site from within a public policy organization is that I’m immersed in jargon that ordinary people aren’t normally exposed to. People in advocacy choose their words carefully. In some cases, language is tweaked to be more persuasive, but in others, it’s a matter of using technically accurate terms to fight misconceptions.

So in some cases (but not always), the terminology you see on Midwest Energy News is similar to that used by environmental advocates. That will naturally cause some readers to suspect that I’m playing with words to drive an ideological agenda.

So, in the interest of providing More Information Than You Really Want, here’s a style guide of sorts for this site, and why we use the words we do.

“Renewable energy,” not “alternative energy”: The latter is still pretty common, but “alternative” to what? The word implies that there is “mainstream” energy, and an argument could be made that the dominance of fossil fuels warrants classification of lesser-used technology as “alternative.” But if you look at overall energy consumption (not just the generation of electricity), nuclear power makes up a small percentage as well. Yet you rarely hear nuclear power referred to as “alternative” energy.

Wind, solar, hydroelectric power and biofuels are renewable – that is, they rely on a fuel source that is not finite (at least in practical terms). So “renewable” is the more accurate term.

“Renewable Energy Standard (or Mandate),” not “Renewable energy goal”: The former is enforceable, the latter is not.

“Clean coal” in quotes: Technically, it should always be “carbon capture and sequestration,” but that doesn’t always fit nicely into a headline, and “CCS” may not be clear to all readers. “Clean coal” is considered by environmentalists to be Orwellian doublespeak, but in my world, it gets quotation marks because it’s not an accurate term – “clean” is relative, and in the case of CCS, there is still pollution produced in the process.

“Climate science deniers” vs. “climate skeptics”: The former is more accurate, though I’ll admit I’ve used “skeptics” as shorthand from time to time. Strictly speaking, all scientists are skeptics. There’s a distinction between testing claims via the scientific process, and outright dismissal of the entire process. More often than not, those who claim climate change is an elaborate conspiracy fall into the latter category.

“Variable energy,” not “intermittent energy”: These terms are often used interchangeably to describe the reliability problem of solar and wind power. “Intermittent” means something starts and stops unintentionally, which is technically true of any energy source that doesn’t achieve 100% reliability. The real issue with wind and solar power is variability, that is, uncontrolled changes in output.

“Oil sands” vs. “tar sands”: The stuff that comes from Alberta is bitumen, we could spend days debating whether “oil” or “tar” is the more accurate term. I go with “oil,” because that’s the end product that’s piped into the U.S.

Help me out here – are there other questionably accurate, or downright loaded, energy terms that persist in the media?

One thought on “A word about semantics

  1. Some terms we prefer to use when describing the biofuels E85 and biodiesel:

    “Cleaner-burning”: Here we refer to tailpipe emissions. Both E85 and higher-blend biodiesel have emissions that with measurably less levels of key air pollutants.

    “Largely renewable”: A term we sometime use with E85, referring to the 85% ethanol content in the fuel.

    “Locally produced”: Again referring to the “bio” part of the biofuels. While both ethanol and biodiesel are fungible commodities, as is oil, it is more than likely that the ethanol or soy oil used in Minnesota E85 or biodiesel was grown and processed in here or in a neighboring state. The petroleum likely comes from the Oil Sands in Alberta.