IN THE MAGAZINE we printed a quote from Little Black Lies, the forthcoming book by Jeff Gailus, on using the terms tar sands or oil sands. Here is a full excerpt from the book that expands on the complicated history of the seemingly interchangeable terms.
What’s in a Name?
The oil industry and the Alberta and federal governments prefer the term “oil sands,” while most opponents use the dirtier-sounding “tar sands.” Technically, both “tar sands” and “oil sands” are inaccurate. The substance in question is actually bituminous sand, a mixture of sand, clay, water and an extremely viscous form of petroleum called bitumen, which itself contains a noxious combination of sulphur, nitrogen, salts, carcinogens, heavy metals and other toxins. A handful of bituminous sand is the hydrocarbon equivalent of a snowball: each grain of sand is covered by a thin layer of water, all of which is enveloped in the very viscous, tar-like bitumen. In its natural state, it has the consistency of a hockey puck.
You might be forgiven for believing that the term has been foisted upon us by nasty, truth-hating environmentalists – but you’d be wrong. The term has actually been part of the oil industry lexicon for decades, used by geologists and engineers since at least 1939. According to Alberta oil historian David Finch, everyone called them the tar sands until the 1960s, and both “tar sands” and “oil sands” were used interchangeably until about 10 years ago, when the terminology became horribly politicized.
With the notable exception of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank that often collaborates with government and industry staff, critics of the way Alberta’s bitumen deposits are being developed use “tar sands,” because that is what it was called when they entered the debate. The term accentuates the obvious downsides of the endeavour – water pollution, for instance, and the decline of certain wildlife species, not to mention considerable greenhouse gas emissions and the infringement of First Nations peoples’ constitutionally protected treaty rights – but it is hardly something environmentalists concocted out of nowhere to give the contested development a bad name.
Even the Alberta Chamber of Resources, an industry lobby group, admits that the term “oil sands” gained popularity in the mid-1990s, when government and industry began an aggressive public relations campaign to improve public perception of the dirty-sounding “tar sands.” “Oil sands,” you see, conveys a certain usefulness, a natural resource that creates jobs, increases government revenues, enhances energy security and makes investors rich beyond measure. Tar, on the other hand, is dark and heavy, the kind of glop better suited to paving roads, or coating dangerous subversives before feathering and banishing them from society altogether.
As any corporate communications consultant worth her $1000/day rate knows, there is nothing intrinsically correct, neutral or accurate about the term “oil sands.” Nor is it a coincidence that media coverage has favoured rich and powerful business interests. The media’s preference for “oil sands” is simply the result of the Triple Alliance’s crafty political spin and an aggressive well-funded strategy to brand bitumen development in the brightest possible light, part of a much grander battle plan that relies on a dark web of little black lies to win the day.