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.