Common Sense Canadian

Oil Sands or Tar Sands? Actually, they’re neither

Posted March 21, 2014 by Damien Gillis in Energy and Resources
Oil Sands or Tar Sands? Actually, they're neither

Naming Alberta bitumen has become a sticky topic

As the publisher of an online journal focusing on Canada’s environment and resource economy, the issue of what to call Alberta’s oil patch is an increasingly, um, sticky subject.

Do we use “oil sands”, capitulating to the industry’s late but valiant rebranding effort, or keep to “tar sands”, which is how we’ve generally referred to it in the past? Or, like the Huffington Post and other newer, online publications, float between the two, depending on the story and author – which is what we’re doing more of lately.

Neither oil nor tar

The simple fact of the matter is that viscous, sand-encased substance lying under the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin is neither oil nor tar. Which makes it hypocritical and disingenuous for industry advocates to dismiss their critics for using the word “tar”, while at the same time misrepresenting their product as “oil”.

One thing that substance is most definitely not is sweet, light crude. It’s bitumen. At best, after considerable refining, it will become synthetic crude (or “syncrude”) and various other fuels and petrochemical products. It is never, nor will it ever be oil.

I have always preferred “tar sands”, not because of its activist connotation, but because I believe tar more closely reflects the defining characteristics of bitumen than does oil. Of course, tar is not a single, naturally-occurring substance – rather “a very thick, black, sticky liquid…used especially for road surfaces”, as Merriam-Webster’s defines it. (On that note, a contractor I hired to patch a leaking crack between the asphalt and concrete perimeter at the rear of my building recommended a bitumen product for the job, which worked like a hot damn).

Says Wikipedia, “Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat. It is black, and a mixture of hydrocarbons and free carbon.” A sticky, black substance often derived from coal or petroleum, which is used to patch roads. Sounds an awful lot like bitumen to me.

All of this matters because Alberta bitumen has a bigger environmental footprint than conventional oil – from the water and energy required to extract it, to the condensate required to dilute it and move it through a pipeline, to the emissions from refining and ultimately burning it. When it spills, like it did from an Enbridge pipeline into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, it can prove a god awful mess to clean up (a misnomer itself, as this Michigan spill will never truly be cleaned up). So confusing bitumen with oil is letting it off the hook for being something quite different.

“Tar Sands” can be such a turn-off

That said, I always want to reach new readers, especially with regards to the vital conversation on Canada’s energy future. And the fact is, the oil industry and Harper government, though late out of the gate, have been highly effective at marginalizing the term “tar sands” and those who use it as left-wing nuts and out-of-touch tree-huggers. I’m not saying they’re objectively right about this. Of course they aren’t, especially with the sort of polarizing language they increasingly apply to anyone who dares question the industry: “radical”, “extremist”, or the most egregious, “eco-terrorist”.

Look, anthropogenic climate change is real. Even the oil industry is acknowledging as much these days. Alberta’s toxic tailings ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River – even the Harper government’s scientists recognize this now. So the notion that raising issues with the oil/tar sands makes one an extremist or even terrorist is as obscene as it is preposterous and only serves to further polarize the nation. For that, the industry and its government partners merit recrimination. Heck, even Conservative ex-PM Joe Clark thinks as much.

Nevertheless, the success of the oil lobby in terms of shifting the language paradigm around Alberta bitumen is a present reality which I feel compelled at least to confront.

American author stymied by oil sands/tar sands debate

Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Tony Horwitz encapsulated the issue on CBC radio’s The Current this past week while discussing his time in Alberta researching a new book. Host Anna Maria Tremonti asked, “When you got to Fort MacMurray, were you saying oil sands or tar sands?” Horowitz replied:

I was new to this topic and was sort of an agnostic on that question, but it quickly became clear to me that saying ‘tar sands’ would tar me as a hostile environmentalist. So, I began to say ‘oil sands’. Now that I’m back here in the US, I have to say most of the conversation, it’s ‘tar sands’ – but it’s a mark of how politicized this issue is that we can’t even agree on what to call this substance.

Environmentalists frame tar sands early on

“Oil sands” wasn’t always the go-to moniker for Alberta bitumen. In a rare coup for the environmental movement, the early rounds of the PR war over Alberta’s massive bitumen deposits went to tree-hugging opponents. The term, “tar sands” stuck in the public consciousness, both in Canada and amongst a growing legion of international critics.

Peter Essick's photos for National Geographic gave the oil sands a black eye

Peter Essick’s National Geographic photos gave the oil sands a black eye

This was the kind of rebranding exercise that is so often the province of “free market” conservatives and their pollsters – like Frank Luntz, who advised the Bush Administration to substitute “climate change” for global warming, in order to make it sound less alarming.

Sometime around the 2009 publication of National Geographic’s  groundbreaking photo essay, titled “Scraping Bottom”, the oil lobby recognized it had a real branding problem on its hands. The cover story used the term “oil sands”, but the moonscape images it yielded fit perfectly into the environmental movement’s framing of the “tar sands”.

Soon, the industry and its Harper government allies would be racking up “Fossil” awards at annual climate summits, battling to keep the European Commission from slapping a surchage on Canadian bitumen exports (a battle it is losing, as the European Parliament recently recommended extending the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive beyond 2020) and dealing with the Obama Administration’s stonewalling on the Keystone XL pipeline – not to mention heavy-duty opposition to Alberta pipelines proposed to cross BC.

Oil lobby’s PR flacks play catch-up…and quickly

Somewhere in there, the industry got its act together and decided to go public with a multi-million dollar rebranding effort. This included the “Ethical Oil” concept (though you’ll never get any of them to admit a direct connection between this group,  the Harper government and the oil industry). But, more importantly, it revolved around a massive advertising campaign – encompassing print, online, radio and television – dousing the Canadian public in saccharine ads extolling the virtues of improved technology, remediated wetlands and indispensable economic benefits.  All emblazoned with two words: “OIL SANDS “.

A leaked 2013 Postmedia sales pitch to the industry’s leading lobby, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), offered to manufacture sympathetic news coverage across its national newspaper chain. Not long after this pitch, Postmedia demoted star national energy reporter Mike De Souza through the cancellation of its parliamentary bureau.

This on top of paid speaking engagements for two of the CBC’s most prominent on-air talents, National anchor Peter Mansbridge and pundit and radio host Rex Murphy. Neither of these newsmen and none of these outlets has seen fit to acknowledge any impropriety or ethical conflict in these situations.

So today, a survey of the nation’s leading media publications reveals that essentially all of them have chosen “oil” over “tar”. For Sun News and the CBC,  “oilsands” is the most consistent choice – with the occasional “oil sands” mixed in.

The Globe and Mail prefers a space between oil and sands, as does the National Post, though parent Postmedia doesn’t appear to have a national policy on the subject yet, as The Vancouver Sun usually opts for “oilsands”. Meanwhile,  CAPP itself uses “oil sands”.

Bigger than Po-tay-to/Po-tah-to

As author Horwitz noted, it’s pretty well impossible to engage in a sound debate  about the oil sands/tar sands if we can’t even agree on what to call them.

Defaulting to oil sands may ensure a wider readership for our stories at The Common Sense Canadian, but in capitulating to the oil lobby’s choice of language, I recognize would be helping to legitimize its corporate, PR flack misnomer, the “oil sands.” Moreover, calling it “oil” glosses over the important differences between these two products – from the water and climate issues, to the properties which may very well make bitumen more prone to spills and more difficult to clean up. The consequences of this word choice are far more serious than po-tay-to/po-tah-to.

So how about we split the difference and call them what they really are: The Bitumen Sands?

Maybe not as catchy, but a hell of a lot more honest.


About the Author

Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.


    William Roy Whiteway Smallwood

    Reread the end of my last email where it says …
    “This offer is best because 1) it liberates 3 Oxygen for every Methane also liberated, 2) It replaces diesel with No-Lead synthetic Octane gasoline (there are only 8 Carbons in Octane gasoline), & 3) your charity is open to the same 15% reward open to other people!” 4) It also produces 1 Calcium atom for every 1 Carbon atom produced! We need more Calcium!

    Yours sincerely William Roy Whiteway Smallwood 1(709)834-9700

      William Roy Whiteway Smallwood

      3 Oxygen for ecery carbon! That is one more than is consumed in carbon dioxide! A gift from the rock to gasoline miners/chemists! I repeat 3, not 2, Oxygen are made from chemically converting Calcium Chlorite into 3 Oxtgen + 1 Carbon! The Atlantic may turn from blue to green to catch up with the P.R.C. photosynthesis to deal with so many lungs just breathing out carbon dioxide!

    Pierre Trudeau

    Tar, baby

    Tar is a viscous black liquid. It is made by the destructive distillation of organic matter. Most tar is produced from coal as a byproduct of coke production, but it can also be produced from petroleum, peat or wood.

    Term misuse
    The word “tar” is often used to describe several different substances which are not actually tar. Naturally occurring “tar pits” (e.g. the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles) actually contain asphalt rather than tar. Tar sand deposits contain various mixtures of sand (or rock) with bitumen or heavy crude oil and not tar, as does the Tar Tunnel in Shropshire. “Rangoon tar”, also known as “Burmese Oil” or “Burmese Naphtha”, is actually petroleum. “Tar” and “pitch” are sometimes used interchangeably; however, pitch is considered more solid while tar is more liquid.


    Definition of TAR SAND

    :  a natural impregnation of sand or sandstone with petroleum from which the lighter portions have escaped

    : sand or sandstone that is naturally soaked with heavy sticky portions of petroleum


    I guess at face value you could call me a canadian miner, for this is my occupation. Like most things in life however if we only take things at face value we neglect to see the truth. This is also applicable to the bitumen project. Most people fail to see the true problem because they can not come to terms with the fact that they are the problem. We over consume. Industry is the scapegoat, they are only feeding the addiction. The fact that the addiction is heavily endorsed by the government is an ethical issue in itself, but hey, we voted that into our lives too. The bitumen projects are destructive. When you see it first hand it is overwhelming. If you start to imagine the work it would take to reclaim the whole area you soon realize that it will likely never happen. Unless of course society collectively opens their eyes to the truth and we get a few hundred thousand volunteers and enough donations to fund the massive overtaking. I assure you that once this area is mined out the companies will disappear.

    Murray Stone

    The bitumen sands (as I suppose we could call them in the interests of neutrality) were originally called tar sands back in the 20’s and 30’s, but in the interests of scientific precision the word “tar” came to be avoided because, simply put, there’s no more tar there than there is oil. In chemistry a tar is a dry distillate, but bitumen is no more a dry distillate than (as you correctly point out) it is oil.


    It’s worth noting that the term “oil sands” was being used by industry back in the mid-1960s. In fact, my father worked on the construction of the pioneer Great Canadian Oil Sands plant (“GCOS”) around 1965-66.

    There was little, if any, public controversy over the project at the time, so it’s hard to see “oil sands” as purely a PR exercise (then). Nobody cared what the muck was called in those days. I can only assume “oil sands” was chosen mainly because it referred to the intended end product … synthetic crude oil.

      Damien Gillis

      Thanks David. Well noted. Both terms do pre-date the recent debate surrounding them. But each was championed by contemporary groups for the different ways in which they help to frame the debate. I would argue the subtext these words have been imbued with has played a key role in the whole conversation, which is largely unfortunate in terms of developing good public policy on the subject.


    How about calling it ” the only thing that saved Canada from becoming poor and bankrupt”
    Bunch of hypocrites. You think the US wouldn’t be all over this if it was in their back yard?? You think China would give two shits about the rivers, people, aboriginals? You think Japan would leave it untouched, just like they are leaving the Nuclear waste that’s pouring into the ocean everyday?
    Get a grip. If it can’t be grown, it’s gotta be mined. That includes the toilet seat your sitting on, the lid on your Starbucks coffee, that mobile device or laptop that your ignorant face is buried in and 98% of the products your car is made of, as you burn fuel to drive yourself to a nail appointment to put petroleum products on to display to the world. Proud to be a Canadian miner!!!!!!

      Damien Gillis

      Thank you for perfectly illustrating my point about the divise, polarizing nature of this issue, Will.

        serious joe

        I’m certain that Will was not polarized by this issue, and certainly not by your writing. You take credit where none is due. Once Will calms down, I’m with him.


          Ironic that someone named “Will” has surrendered his to the almighty pay cheque……………..

    ron wilton

    I liken Peter Mansbridge to Alex Trebek on Jeopardy. Alex comes across as very bright, but of course, he has all the answers written down for him at his fingertips.

    Peter has a long history of schmoozing with the newsmakers. Both he and Wendy were regular attendees at 24 Sussex partying in the Mulroney era, and he has attended at least one Bilderberger meeting where I am sure a real bona fide ‘reporter’ would not attend on the ‘sworn to secrecy’ basis alone.

    Rex is more like the unknown comic from the Gong Show daze.

    Rex is truly an enigma, how a professor at Memorial University could become so disentangled from the englsh language and hopelessly entangled with the conservative reform alliance bowdlerization of politics is certainly light years beyond my comprehension.

    That they both would willingly if not gleefully be succoured by the guile of the CAPP is not so surprising given their past predictable (Peter) and quixotic(Rex) behaviours.

      Gil Sampson

      The “Conservative Reform Alliance” Party is indeed CRAP.


      They sold their souls for the almighty dollar. I’m surprised it took as long as it did.
      Another reason to turn the television off when the “News” comes on.


    Anyone remember ethical oil? What a joke … it would be funny if it wasn’t so damn sleazy mouthed and insidious. I like this article by Damien for pointing out how language is being used to soften the stench of the actuality. Something we see and hear a lot of these days from the propaganda machine. Bill Maher was on about rewording things last night (March 21 2014) in his New Rules segment on his show for anyone interested.

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