Tar sands (‘oil’ sands)

The expression ‘tar sands’ is a colloquial term used to describe sands that are perhaps more accurately described as bituminous sands. They constitute a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen – an exceptionally viscous and dense form of petroleum – which has, since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, been referred to as ‘tar’ due to its similar viscosity, odour and colour. However, naturally occurring bitumen is chemically more similar to asphalt than to tar, and the term oil sands is now more commonly used by industry and in the producing areas than tar sands since synthetic oil is what is manufactured from the bitumen. Even so, the term oil sands fails to convey the constituent complexity of the sands, and moreover, serves to sanitise the environmentally destructive industrial processes intrinsic to this particular form of oil production. Indeed the environmental costs (externalities) of this form of unconventional oil production are enormous.

Tar sands-derived oil must be extracted by strip mining or the oil made to flow into wells by ‘in situ’ techniques, which reduce the viscosity by injecting steam, solvents, and/or hot air into the sands. These processes use much more water than conventional oil extraction – three barrels of water are used to process one barrel of oil – and produce huge ‘tailings ponds’ (‘tailings lakes’ is more accurate) into which over 480 million gallons of contaminated toxic waste water are dumped daily.  Some of these tailings ponds are so toxic that the energy companies employ people to scoop dead birds off the surface; and most are unlined. Taken together, these waste lakes ‘cover more than 50 square kilometres (12,000 acres) and are so extensive that they can be seen from space’. In addition, producing liquid fuels from such sands requires huge amounts of energy for steam injection and refining processes which generate considerably higher levels of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product than the production of conventional oil. Even if the combustion of the product itself is included, which has a levelling effect on the comparison and hence is the preferred measurement of the extractive industries involved – known as the ‘well to wheels’ – approach, bituminous sands extraction, upgrade and use generates 8 to 37 per cent higher emissions than conventional oil. Thus, if we do not seek to minimise the impact of these externalities the term ‘tar sands’ is preferable: it suggests the sand has a more complex constitution and that useable oil must be extracted from the sticky, heavy, viscous base material (bitumen) through industrial processes which have huge environmental and human costs.

Read more:

Huseman and Short, ‘A Slow Industrial Genocide’: Tar Sands and the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Alberta, The International Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 2012, 216–237; or read the EEI Research Paper version of this academic article, Extreme Energy as Genocidal Method: Tar Sands and the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Alberta.

James Hansen NYTimes Op-Ed, Game Over for the Planet, May 9, 2012