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Myth Buster

Tar Sands versus Oil Sands: What’s in a name?

The tug of war over what to call it doesn’t change the fact that it’s home to Canada’s largest oil discovery and a vital resource.

Myth:

The term ‘tar sands’ is accurate.

Source of this myth:

While ‘tar sands’ has heritage in the oil industry lexicon dating back to the late 1800s, the confusion over its accuracy stems from how the term is used today. The label has become a dog-whistle for opponents who use it to sound the alarm about the environmental downsides of the resource. 

Busted:

It’s true that many geologists, engineers and rig workers helped introduce the ‘tar sands’ term. But – and there’s a big but here – they were using the term in the industry’s early days to describe only the tar-like consistency of bitumen as it’s found in the ground. And there’s evidence that those developing the deposits began to encourage the use of ‘oil sands’ once they started to fully understand the resource’s chemical makeup and uniqueness. Certainly, you’ll see both ‘oil sands’ and ‘tar sands’ in use today, but here are five reasons why oil sands is the more accurate choice:

Workers construct the Great Canadian Oil Sands site in 1966. Photo credit: Glenbow Archives PA-3672-4.

The resource is technically known as bituminous sands because bitumen, a heavy petroleum product, is mixed with the sand. The resource contains zero tar. Not one bit.

It makes sense to describe the resource as oil sands because oil is what is finally derived from the bitumen.

‘Oil’ is more accurate than ‘tar’ to describe the naturally occurring bitumen deposits. Tar is commonly associated with distilled or manmade products, such as the mixtures used to pave roads.

There’s history with both terms, but it’s important to note the world’s first large-scale commercial operation was called the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company. This company – the predecessor to Suncor – was founded in the 1960s.

In addition to industry, the Canadian and Alberta governments use ‘oil sands.’ Objective third-party media organizations such as the Canadian Press (CP) have also weighed in on the issue. The CP Style Guide, which is based on principles of neutrality, popular usage, clarity and consistency, calls for the use of oilsands (one word).

Tar is commonly associated with distilled or manmade products, such as the mixtures used to pave roads.

The bottom line:

Yes, the term ‘tar sands’ was coined in the early years by industry workers to describe northern Alberta’s reserves. Today, tar is more commonly associated with manmade road paving products. Oil sands is the more accurate term as it describes what is derived from the deposits (oil) and what the bitumen is mixed with at the time of extraction (sand).