'Tar Sands' vs. 'Oil Sands' Political Flap Misguided?

What to call Alberta's reserves is raising a fuss, but for wrong reason, research indicates.

By Geoff Dembicki 25 Apr 2011 |

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee with a focus on the Alberta oil sands and the fossil fuels industry.

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Tell people this is oil sand and odds are they'll like it less than tar sand.

The debate over whether to use "oil sands" versus "tar sands" is about way more than terminology. And never has that been more obvious than during the current federal election.

Just last week, the Calgary Herald ran an editorial lambasting NDP leader Jack Layton for the word choice he made in week one of the campaign.

He'd said "tar sands" during a stop in Quebec -- a term the Herald claimed has "become part of the rhetoric of extremists who are anti-oil."

Anyone involved in the battle over Alberta's unconventional oil industry knows each term represents a distinct political position.

Both terms have been in use for well over half a century, and there was a time when even Albertan promoters of bitumen mining saw no slur in the word "tar sands" (see sidebar).

These days, environmentalists opposed to further development generally favour "tar sands" because it sounds dirtier. And industry and government stick to the supposedly more benign "oil sands."

Yet public survey research never before made public could turn the whole debate on its head.

As it turns out, suggests statistical data collected by Vancouver pollster Angus McAllister, neither position -- environmental or industry -- seems quite aware of how regular folks interpret the language.

"Both terms are being used consciously by different sides for a desired effect," McAllister told the Tyee. But after trying to get to the bottom of the question, he finds "no data whatsoever to show that using 'oil sands' makes Canadians more accepting of the industry or creates a positive impression."

In fact, there's evidence "oil sands" creates more concern in people's minds than "tar sands."

Layton speaks of 'dirty fuels'

Outside of Alberta, oil industry issues have barely surfaced in this federal election.

No party leader raised them during the April 12 national leadership debates. And so the few relevant statements made by federal leaders have been examined closely for weeks by Alberta media.

Certainly the most picked apart was Layton's "dirty fuels" pronouncement early in the election.

"Stephen Harper is handing billions to oil companies developing Canada's dirtiest energy sources, like the tar sands," the NDP leader said after a campaign stop in Montreal.

Layton promised to cancel those subsidies and has called for a "more measured pace of development."

Interestingly, the Calgary Herald didn't so much take issue with the statements themselves, as it did with his vocabulary.

"It's not what Layton said," read an editorial from early April. "It's the loaded and inaccurate language he used repeatedly, referring to the oil sands as 'dirty' and 'tar sands' -- a word that's part of the propaganda lexicon for radical environmentalists."

Obama's 'tar sands' blunder?

Only days later, U.S. president Barack Obama himself entered this language debate.

Responding to an audience question during a town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania, Obama set off another round of linguistic navel-gazing in oil rich Alberta.

"These tar sands," the president said, "there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there, and we've got to examine all those questions."

Did he really mean that awful word, "tar sands", asked the Calgary Herald, which to industry insiders is "the equivalent of dropping the f-bomb in church"?

In the Herald's news report, Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert concluded that no, Obama's slip up was probably just due to "naiveté."

"But of course," the minister added, "From an environmentalist standpoint, the word tar has a very negative connotation."

Nearly two weeks later, the Herald was still ruminating about Layton's and Obama's language choices.

"Tar sands is inaccurate and pejorative," wrote columnist Paula Arab.

She seemed willing to forgive Obama's "blunder" as an off-guard remark not intended to sully Alberta's oil industry.

But Layton, in her opinion, should have known better than take "cheap shots" from Quebec.

"At the end of the day, Canada has to engage the world in an informed discussion about the oil sands," Arab concluded. "It would help if politicians used the language correctly."

Assumptions challenged

So judging from this recent coverage, one might reasonably conclude that when regular Canadians encounter the word "tar sands", they think of a dirty, polluting industry.

And hearing their elected leaders say "oil sands" helps assuage such fears.

In fact, argues Vancouver pollster McAllister, that equation is backwards.

Two years ago, his firm, McAllister Opinion Research, tested each term on a random sample of 1,629 Canadians, the first time such polling had ever been done.

Half of those surveyed were asked to rate their concern about "Alberta oil sands" while the other half were asked about "Alberta tar sands."

For Canadians as a whole, 39 per cent said they were "very concerned" about the "oil sands" compared to 32 per cent for "tar sands."

"This language testing measure suggests that Canadians are more concerned about oil sands than tar sands, despite the latter being the lexicon favoured by environmental groups," a summary report reads.

That gap appeared to grow even greater the further respondents lived from Alberta.

In Vancouver, for instance, 14 per cent more participants identified the "oil sands" as an issue worthy of deep concern as opposed to "tar sands."

The disparity in Atlantic Canada was a full 19 percentage points. (Only in Alberta and Saskatchewan did "tar sands" elicit a more concerned response).

"Everybody thinks tar is worse," McAllister told the Tyee. "But when you look at the way language is used, people talk about oil spills, oil cartels, oil lobbyists, Big Oil. I've never heard people get upset about 'Big Tar' or 'Tar Tankers.'"

And it's precisely this long string of negative historical associations that makes people profoundly distrustful of anything relating to oil, he said.

Of course, McAllister is first to admit his figures are two years out of date. That's why he's currently repeating the test, and should have revised data in the next couple weeks.

But don't count on this language trend reversing, he said.

"There have been some very significant events since 2009. Think of the BP oil spill. Think of Enbridge's pipeline rupture. Those events will not have diminished the negative feelings people have for oil," McAllister said.     [Tyee]


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:

"The University of Alberta's library has a scanned copy of The History of Alberta Oil that quotes the December 1939 issue of The Pre-Cambrian:

"'The tar sands, or more properly the oil sands, of the McMurray area constitute probably the largest potential oil field in the world, and it has been the dream of many oil technologists to find an efficient and economic process of separating the oil from the sand in such a condition that it will be readily processed in a modern refinery into gasoline, diesel and fuel oil, and road oils..." -- Mr. L. C. Drummond, Secretary-Manager of the Alberta and North-West Chamber of Mines. Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces; University of Alberta Library.

What's The Tyee's policy on tar sands vs. oil sands? Agnostic. "I publish whichever term the writer chooses, no questions asked. We're not the Spanish Inquisition here," explains editor David Beers.

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