PHOTOS: An environmentalist, left, leads a discussion about whether the term “tar sands” or “oil sands” is more accurate. At right, a Calgary Herald columnist. Actual participants in this debate may or may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: The offending “Alberta Tar Sands” sign, which could have been Photoshopped, I guess; the Spanish Inquisition.

If you’ve ever watched the opening scene* of the 1981 Canadian horror movie called Scanners, you know what happens to a typical advocate of wide-open development of Alberta’s vast bituminous sands if you happen to use the term “tar sands.”

This makes it almost too much fun not to say “tar sands” every time you have the opportunity, although normally I do try to behave myself in this space with something neutral in the current context, say, bitumen sands.

Advocates of the anti-tar-sands point of view think you should say “oil sands,” a term they claim is more accurate, or even scientific, although in reality nowadays this debate has on either side less to do with perceptions of accuracy than getting up each others’ noses.

I was reminded of this recently when a small joke in this spaceLone Star State Versus Lone Tar Province – prompted an extremely agitated response on Twitter by members of the Tory Troll Patrol.

An accompanying picture of an old rail car innocently displaying a sign reading “Alberta Tar Sands” prompted spittle-spraying accusations of Photoshopping. Doesn’t look like to me, but I’m not going to lose any sleep if it turns out to be so.

The debate about whether “tar sands” or “oil sands” is the more accurate way to describe Alberta’s vast deposits of bituminous gunk goes back at least to the late 1930s. It is far from settled.

If were only talking about accuracy, both points of view have their merits, rather like arguing metric measurements for distance are superior to imperial ones because the former divides arbitrary distances into units of 100 and the latter systematizes approximate distances with which we are all familiar, say, a foot, or, if you own a horse, a hand.

Now, I am sure someone will claim that there’s nothing arbitrary about the length of a metre, but, seriously, people, what would be more arbitrary than “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458th of a second”? Please!

However, je digresse. Bituminous sand looks and acts like road tar, which is presumably where it got that particular name. It’s saturated with oil, which means oil sands is a reasonable way to describe the stuff too. On that particular question, I’m agnostic.

More recently, though, advocates of, erm, tar sands development in the Alberta government and various industry lobby groups have made it an ideological project to eliminate the term tar sands on the grounds it’s pejorative.

It wasn’t really, but now they’ve succeeded at making it so, which makes it far more attractive to many commentators. Moreover, alas, from their perspective, I’m afraid oil sands isn’t going to be much better, thanks to the age old tendency of successful euphemisms for unmentionable things coming to mean the same thing as whatever they genteelly replaced.

I give you toilet, water closet, and washroom … an appropriate enough a metaphor, some might argue, under the circumstances.

I await the announcement, indeed, that oil sands enthusiasts have come up with a new term. A couple of approaches suggest themselves.

There’s the innocent-sounding acronym, say, PERFUME, for Petroleum-based Energy Resource From Undersurface Muck Extractions. ( readers more clever than the author of this blog are encouraged to come up with their own offerings. That’s what the comments section is for.)

There’s also the Orwellian half-lie, beloved of both our Conservative federal government and our Progressive Conservative provincial government – naming the process after an irrelevant but positive sounding aspect of the process, for example, “Sand Cleaning And Repurposing (SCA…” No! Wait. Just belay that particular idea!)

(Aside: Until circa 1941, the commander in chief of the United States Navy on U.S. territory was known as CINCUS. You only have to say it aloud to understand the problem with that acronym, drawn forcefully to the USN’s attention on Dec. 7 of the year mentioned above.)

Part of why this oil sands campaign is not working – indeed, is having the opposite effect to that intended – is the hysterical attitude of those who are conducting it.

Every time a Calgary Herald columnist becomes splutteringly furious lecturing someone on the perfidy of saying “tar sands” the whole trope becomes unintentionally hilarious. Hilarity, of course, encourages repetition, not to mention social media memes.

Advocates of the “oil sands” approach are free to call the sands whatever they like, of course. We’re still a free society here in Canada, for the moment, anyway, and may be for a while yet if the price of oil stays low enough.

But they’d really be smarter when they hear “tar sands” spoken just to take a Valium and roll their eyes, instead of trying to call in the Spanish Inquisition!

Otherwise, they’ve got to understand, all they’re ever going to hear is: Tar sands!

This post also appears on * The rest of the movie is not worth watching.

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  1. I remember elementary school science classes where ‘tar sands’ were discussed. And the greenhouse gas effect. No doubt the discussion of tar sands has been replaced with discussions of intelligent design. But that’s progress, right?


    The term tar sands was more widely used than oil sands to describe Alberta’s bitumen fields until the 1960s, when the provincial government made it a formal policy to call it oil sands.

    Today, the Schlumberger Oilfield Glossary defines “tar sand” this way:

    “A sand body that contains heavy hydrocarbon residues such as tar or asphalt, or degraded oil that has lost its volatile components. Hydrocarbons can be liberated from tar sands by heating and other processes, but tar sands, such as the Athabasca tar sands of Canada, are not commonly commercial because of high costs of production.

    “Among some workers in the field of heavy oil, this term is falling out of use, in favor of the term ‘oil sand.'”

    The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers website describes the term tar sands as a “colloquialism” and oil sands as “an accurate term.” However the same CAPP site notes interchangeable usage over 70 years ago:

    More here:

  3. For my sins, I spent a not-brief-enough period during university working in Calgary for a Major Oil Company as a lab tech. My lab director was tasked with improving extraction techniques. I got to clean the equipment. The petroleum we separated was as close to “tar” as you could get. It would barely flow at room temperature, and once it got on something the only way to get it off was by the application of some other hydrocarbon solvent. Our favourite was benzene, or if we had any, some raw distillate. I am still waiting for my liver cancer to mature.
    Good times, and the reason I gave up chemistry. So yes, it might be oil, but the average person will call it tar if they see it or get it on their hands. Coastal folks think bunker oil is bad, but nothing like this s**t.

  4. re: ‘Our favourite was benzene, or if we had any, some raw distillate. I am still waiting for my liver cancer to mature.”

    Very sorry to hear your story.

    I have some sense of the situation you were subjected to.

    Because: A close friend was driven out of an occupational health and safety career by the aggressive attacks by corporate managers for petro-research/production facilities on this friends critique and recommendations on how to prevent worker exposures to the full range of toxic petro-refining products and by-products. Workers who tried to be whistle-blowers were constantly under threat of being fired.

    IMO, from reading about and watching the petro-industry since the late 80’s, I think there is sufficient evidence to argue that in AB, the petro-industry functions effectively as the mafia of AB health, environment and economic policy. Amoral.

    You won’t get shot. But they have captured government and gov’t’s delegate regulators since Klein to the extent that nothing happens with petro-industry OK in AB. The PC/WRP coalition is now firmly owned.

    And if you are someone like Jessica Ernst who has the capacity to get into MSM coverage with her critique of the petro-industry attacks, then the full force will come down on your head of the gov’t energy industry regulators + their joint-venture industry partners.

    No exaggeration anymore IMO to use mafia-like comparison. They took out Stelmach by fundin WRP.

    ‘It’s just business.’ As per Godfather movie ethos.

    …regulators like AER, prior to AER the ERCB actually function more like enforcers for the petro-industry than protectors of the public good and the citizenry.

    related links:
    Read the last 5 paragraphs starting here: The energy sector was well satisfied with the disciplining effect of a new political contender on the Conservatives’ right, as some of its representatives made clear at a conference in March 2012: ‘

    History, explanation of petro-money control of PC/WRP coalition.

    1. re: ‘But they have captured government and gov’t’s delegate regulators since Klein to the extent that nothing happens with petro-industry OK in AB. The PC/WRP coalition is now firmly owned. ”

      Nothing happens WITHOUT petro-industry OK in Ab.


      M-U-S-T s-l-o-w-down typing.

    2. Petro- or Fossi-fuel-elite as Mafia… see Australian story:

      excerpt: They told him they referred to themselves as the ‘mafia’.

      JANINE COHEN: Guy Pearse decided to investigate why the fossil fuel industries had so much political clout. He taped interviews for his doctorate with industry lobbyists who were very frank about their power and influence. Dr Pearse said they were candid because he promised not to identify them. They told him they referred to themselves as the ‘mafia’. Four Corners has used actors to repeat what industry insiders told Guy Pearse.

  5. The current definition of a metre may seem arbitrary, but it was not always so. This from Wikipedia: “…Originally intended to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole (at sea level), its definition has been periodically refined to reflect growing knowledge of metrology.” One ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the Pole is not arbitrary, but based on a natural quantity, the size of the Earth. The litre is also based on the metre: one cubic decimetre of volume equals a litre. Finally, the mass of one litre of distilled water is one kilogram, although that measurement has also been further refined.

    Sure makes a lot more sense than 5,280 feet to the mile, eh?

    1. Uh, if you want to argue about this, not really. You’ve just got to know the origin of the term and all is explained. From … one thousand … that is to say, 1,000 steps. Like the foot, it’s tied to the limitations of the human body. What it makes is a different kind of sense.

  6. Ok… according to people who know, Sun oil and Dr Clark were heard to utter the phrases tarsands, diluted bitumen, don’t worry it’s good for you and many others likely. My favourite is “Dirty Beaches” to describe the whole region, but mostly the people who run the oil companies doing business there.

  7. Perhaps even more ridiculous and misleading is the industry claim that existing and proposed pipelines that transport diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) are actually transporting “crude”. The CBC and other mainstream media seem to have bought this. Dilbit is not “crude” and does not behave like crude when leaked. The US EPA discovered this when trying to clean up the 1-million gallon dilbit spill from an Enbridge pipeline into the Kalamazoo River, Michigan in 2010. The key problem is that the dilutent, or diluent, evaporates from the dilbit mixture over time. At first the leaking dilbit floats on the water surface like oil. But as evaporation occurs, the residue of bitumen becomes heavier than water, sinks gradually through the layers of water (and water-borne life forms) and then settles on the bottom. In the Kalamazoo River case it eventually had to be bulldozed out. It’s not crude.

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