Watching the television news in Canada these days, one sees the environmental opponents of the oil sands parading around with signs that say “Stop the Tar Sands”. One way to distinguish whether someone is for or against the oil sands is to see what terminology they use. Do they call them “oil sands” (i.e. pro groups) or “tar sands” (i.e.anti groups)? Personally raw bitumen seems more tar-like than oil-like so the enviro’s seem to have it right.
Going back many decades the oil sands were originally called the tar sands. I’m not sure when the terminology shifted, but in the mid-1960’s the first large scale mining operation was called Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS). I’m also not sure about the reason for the terminology shift from tar to oil, but maybe it was related to the fact that “tar” was considered something of low perceived value while “oil” was considered something of high economic value. Heck… look at what oil did for the economic situation of Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies. How about the show “Dallas” – lots of money and scotch drinking. We all wanted to discover an oil well in our backyard so perhaps at that time the term “oil” implied some level of elegance and prosperity.
These days when one sees the term “oil” in the news, it tends to be associated with negatives. We see oil references to rail explosions, pipeline ruptures, tanker spills, off shore platform leakage, fracing, greenhouse gas emissions, Middle East wars, and environmental protests. I don’t know if there is any intangible benefit in using the term “oil” to describe your product. Maybe there is actually some intrinsic harm in doing so.
Tar (or bitumen) on the other hand, is a molasses-like substance generally viewed by the public as a material used to repair our streets and patch our roofs. A tar spill is not going to flow anywhere; it will barely flow out of the tank it is held in. What is there not to like about tar?
So next time there is a protest with signs being held up to “Stop the Tar Sands”, the oil companies should shrug their shoulders and jump on the band wagon and say “yeah…tar…that’s us…what are you worried about?”. They should try to commandeer the term “tar” back from the protest groups since there is nothing wrong with tar.