Don’t call them ‘tar sands’

The industry-approved lingo for Alberta’s hydrocarbon gunk is ‘oil sands’

Oil by any other name

Larry MacDougal/Newscom

It’s been said that there is no polite non-euphemism in the English language for the place we go to perform excretory functions. Most of the terms we consider neutral like “bathroom” or “water closet,” allude to the washing up that goes on there, and not the other stuff. Even “lavatory,” “latrine,” and “toilet” originally referred to cleansing and primping, and yet those words are still used, by necessity, to describe rooms without plumbing that are nothing but boxes on top of open pits. (Nobody bathes or washes in a traditional military “latrine,” yet the Latin etymology of the word implies bathing.)

Nobody minds, or really notices, this odd lexicographic situation. But something like it seems to be happening with that vast ocean of hydrocarbon gunk in northeastern Alberta that preoccupies policy-makers. To refer to them as the Athabasca “tar sands” has become a signal of opposition to their uninhibited exploitation. Calling them the “oil sands,” the industry-approved phrase, indicates that one is comfortable with digging them up and selling them to the highest bidder, whether Chinese or Chicagoan.

When Canada got a new permanent Opposition leader this week after seven months of waiting, not a full day passed before he was challenged on his record of criticizing the “tar sands” by that objectionable name. And Thomas Mulcair took the challenge seriously enough to try wriggling out of it.

“Frankly, they’re bitumen sands; they’re neither oil nor tar,” he said, hoping to flee to the safety of technical lingo. In French, the sands are referred to uncontroversially as “sables bitumineux.” “I tend to use [the terms] interchangeably,” Mulcair continued, “[but] more and more ‘oil sands’ because that’s what becoming common parlance.” (“Can’t we just call them ‘Alberta crud’?” rejoined exasperated Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner on Twitter.)

Mulcair is right that the bitumen found mixed with sand near Fort McMurray and in other neighbourhoods is neither oil nor tar. The molecules that make bitumen such sticky, stubborn stuff are large, bizarre clumps of hydrocarbon, containing much more carbon and less hydrogen than ordinary crude. Synthesizing oil from bitumen is largely a matter of evening things out chemically after removing sulfur, heavy metals, and other impurities.

But the traditional confusion of bitumen with pine tar or coal tar is understandable. All these substances—oil, tar, and bitumen—are ultimately produced by the application of heat and pressure to plant matter. The famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain bitumen, not tar; but it is in nobody’s interest to fight over that name, so it stays.

There is a deep irony here. The oil patch whose professional communicators now insist that they are “oil sands,” and that no other term is acceptable, were motivated precisely by the faith that a hydrocarbon is a hydrocarbon—a faith that took 50 years of research and investment, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to find even the first hints of economic justification. It has taken another 20 to convince the world that the oil sands were commercially viable—a lot of “peak oil” nerds still haven’t gotten the memo—and that explains why the Alberta oil patch is so sensitive to marketing.

It is not just about avoiding the ugly connotations of “tar,” though environmentalists certainly like to emphasize those. It is about keeping the international focus on the word “oil,” because oil means money. Tar is just something you cover a road with—and, in fact, while engineers were struggling to unlock the oil sands, many people thought that was exactly what they would end up being used for.

Mulcair’s promise to call them the “oil sands” thus signifies, as it is meant to, his new position of responsibility and awareness as the official leader of a shadow government. Canada is, on net, an oil-exporting enterprise. Mulcair is applying for the CEO job. Things he was allowed to say as an ordinary legislator now become effectively unthinkable for him.

But the dreaded term “tar sands” will probably remain permitted language in the oil patch when old-timers are talking amongst themselves. It’s a bit like an Irishman happily calling himself a “mick” and then flying into a rage when a stranger does it. Engineers, geologists, and rig workers have always used “tar sands” and “oil sands” interchangeably in the past. Karl Clark, the chemist who discovered how to turn bitumen into synthetic oil, didn’t mind calling them the “tar sands.” Neither did Howard Pew, the Sun Oil boss whose quirky curiosity led to their commercialization. The people of Alberta know and revere these names; they aren’t really as afraid of the T-word as they let on.




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Don’t call them ‘tar sands’

  1. This comment was deleted.

    •  As if we could grow enough hemp to do this.

    •  One man’s poison is another man’s profit.
      If there were no profits allowed you’d not be on a computer today.
      There’s hemp growing in Canada albeit we’re not the ideal climate for it.

    • Plus it is a lot more fun to smoke.
      What a PinHead

    • Do you run your vehicle on hemp?

    •  I wasn’t interested in hemp until Russell Barth called me a podunk moron. But he seems credible, so lets convert the oil sands to hemp farms.

  2. I worked in Ft. Mac back in the early 70s and everybody there called them tar sands.  And that’s what I continue to call them, although I’m now leaning towards using the term “bitumen” on comment boards, just to avoid the hassles from the word police.  I’m certainly never going to call them “oil” sands because that, too, is a misnomer.

  3. Regardless of what you call it, without Alberta’s oil, this country would be is pretty bad shape.

    •  Well we got along without it before 1947…and without it, Alberta might have developed a real economy.

    • Actually the overvalued tar-sands dollar has turned the manufacturing sector into a rust belt. Any economist will tell you a country cannot maintain a high standard of living off of resources.

      We need to foster an economic engine founded on exporting value-added goods and services. Harper, having come from a province lazy on resource welfare, is completely ignorant of these facts. His solution is to extract more resources. 

      Canadians want real jobs close to home. They don’t want to be shipped off to the middle of nowhere to work in an open-pit mine.

      • So the under valued US dollar will bring their manufacturing back? Why do you think manufacturing continues to move to Mexico or China? Could it be that the. Anuractures have figured out that their cost of production goes down? I know it still easier to blame some one else though.

    • 100% of Canada’s oil industry gave about $70billion out of a total $1.9 trillion gdp last year. Peanuts. Seems like you can feed an army with the oil propaganda you’ve been fed. Alberta produces about 55% out of that oil industry.

  4. Well, coca-cola was once called the Aphrodisiac Drink of Imperialism, somewhere in the East bloc, which was not the East Block.

  5. It should be caled a crime against humanity and a shame Canada will never reover from.

  6. I can’t wait to smoke some herbal essence sticks.  The word “cigarettes” will be verboten.

    I’ll continue to call the sands “the Tar Sands.”

  7. It’s not the term “tar sands” that is the problem, per se, it’s the sneer that accompanies the term as it is spat out in disgust that has turned it into a pejorative.

  8. Can we still call Calgary “Cowtown”? 

    It’s no longer a town, and there are no cows.

    • What do you mean there aren’t cows? And Calgary was once a town, whereas the tar/oil/bitumen sands were never tar.

      I get your argument, but marjory has the right of it. It’s not what’s said, it’s how it’s said.

  9. The term ‘tar’ these days usually refers the the material obtained from the destructive distillation of coal. Coal tar is considerably different in chemical constitution to petroleum oils. Bitumen is usually obtained as a residue from the distillation under vacuum of crude petroleum oil. The oil found in the Athabasca region is very viscous crude petroleum oil.

  10. Another hard hitting Macleans story! Thanks for tackling the toughest Tarsands issues! What would Canada do without this journalism excellence?

  11. Iron, nickel, copper, gold, etc mines do not flow out pure product. It has to be refined. But we still call it a copper mine not a ore mine or a rock mine. Same as oilsand development, the end product after refining is oil. At no point is it tar and Alberta is not selling tar.
    It is an oil mine so it is perfectly acceptable to say oilsand developments because that is what they are. Not one is developing tar.

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