…. Or Some Notions, Perceptions, and Misinformation (NPMs) vs. Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands

Mention “Alberta oil sands” and you would probably evoke in most hearers’ or readers’ minds a negative image, maybe even a sinister one.

We may attribute this phenomenon to the proliferation of highly critical media coverage of the oil sands. Such media chatter has definitely approached very-high-intensity decibels even as North America (primarily) is engaged in the raging debate about Keystone XL Pipeline project.

About the use of the term “oil sands” — I just did a seven-page random sampling of Google pages on the subject of “Alberta oil sands” followed by a cursory contents review of entries on those pages. I classified the entry contents into:

  • Positive (definitely supportive of the Alberta oil sands);
  • Negative (overtly critical of the Alberta oil sands); and
  • Neutral (being neither overtly for or against the Alberta oil sands).

The results of this, my  obviously non-scientific,  exercise are nevertheless very interesting and illustrative as noted in the following summary:

  • Negative entries (overtly critical of Alberta oil sands) – 37 entries (50%);
  • Positive entries (definitely supportive of Alberta oil sands) – 27 entries (36%); and
  • Neutral entries (balanced content) – 10 entries (14%)

One interesting trend I noticed is that entries employing the term “tar sands” tend to have a negative position or critical content against the Alberta oil sands. On the other hand, the positive-content-entries and most of the neutral-content-ones consistently use the name “oil sands” (two words) or its variant, “oilsands” (one word).

One may surmise persons and entities critical of the oil sands deliberately use the name “tar sands” as a politicized pejorative term (i.e., one that is likely to create a derogatory image). Conversely Alberta oil sands supporters are likely to be perceived as intentionally using the term “oil sands” as an equally politicized term — a politicized meliorative term (i.e., tending to create a pleasant or ‘admirable’ image).

What’s in a name?

As a person with no political agenda and/or being simply concerned with accuracy, how would one determine which name to use – “oil sands” or “tar sands”?

Source: CAPP Upstream Dialogue

Consider the following learned statements of opinion:

 “The hydrocarbon mixtures found in northern Alberta have historically been referred to as tar, pitch or asphalt.

” However, ‘oil sands’ (two words) is now used most often to describe the naturally occurring bitumen deposits. This helps distinguish it from the other terms like tar sands, which are associated with distilled or man-made products, such as the mixtures used to pave roads.

“Oil sands is an accurate term because bitumen, a heavy petroleum product, is mixed with the sand. It makes sense to describe the resource as oil sands because oil is what is finally derived from the bitumen.”



“Technically the product from the bituminous sands deposits is neither tar nor oil. Tar actually comes from trees (Look it up! I too did not know this) and oil comes from petroleum reservoirs.

“In fact the technically correct term is bituminous sands. It’s just not as easy to say as tar sands or oil sands.”

Source: David Finch,Calgary-based Oil Patch historian and author.


“Oil sands are a natural mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. ….Bitumen is oil that is too heavy or thick to flow or be pumped without being diluted or heated. Some bitumen is found within 200 feet from the surface but the majority is deeper underground.”

Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers –


It appears there is a strong scientific case to use the name “oil sands”. However, regardless of one’s preferred term for this proven oil reserve second in size only to Saudi Arabia’s (or third after Saudi Arabia, then Venezuela — depending on which ranking system you use), there exist other NPMs around the Alberta oil sands. I would like to address them here and in succeeding blogs as follows — if only for the sake of accuracy and fairness:

  1. Alberta oil sands produce the dirtiest kind of oil;
  2. Alberta oil sands tailings ponds are turning Northern Alberta into a vast toxic wasteland;
  3. Alberta oil sands is polluting and draining the province’s main sources of freshwater;
  4. Alberta oil sands is a main source of GHG (green house gas) emissions;
  5. Alberta oil sands is responsible for a growing incidence of rare forms of cancer in Northern Alberta’s first nations communities; and
  6. Alberta oil sands is the culprit behind cases of awful fish mutation in the polluted rivers.

Let me here take up the very first and the closely related fourth statements of NPMs, as shown above. Succeeding posts on the subject will progressively tackle the rest.

“Dirty, Dirtier, Dirtiest Oil”

A key NPM that is becoming a staple in the increasingly vociferous Keystone XL pipeline debate is that Alberta’s oil sands is the “dirtiest source of fuel available”, to borrow the words of Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman (30th District of California). He opines that building the pipeline would “…….heighten US’ dependence on this most unclean fuel source.”

First, let’s accept for the sake of argument certain tenets of conventional wisdom, viz.:

  • “Energy from fossil fuel is dirty” (conventional oil and natural gas, unconventional oil and natural gas, coal);
  •  “Energy from renewable sources is clean” (wind, hydropower, marine energy, solar, biomass);
  •  “Geothermal energy is super clean”; and
  •  “Nuclear energy is supposedly clean”.

A corollary of the above set of generally accepted statements of conventional wisdom is as follows:

  • “Natural gas is significantly cleaner than oil”;
  • “Conventional oil and natural gas is cleaner than unconventional oil and natural gas”; and
  • “Oil and natural gas (even unconventional sources) is cleaner than coal”.

Also, based on materials I have reviewed so far,  it would seem energy sources are adjudged clean or unclean on the basis of the following major criteria:

  • GHG virtual footprint (greenhouse gas emissions – particularly CO2) — “from wells-to-wheels”;
  • Virtual freshwater footprint (the amount of water used to produce and bring to end users the energy produced);
  • Contribution to freshwater pollution;
  • Contribution to air pollution; and
  • Contribution to land disturbance and pollution.


Let’s have some perspectives here concerning GHG emissions. As the chart, below, clearly indicates oil sands GHG emissions amount to 6.5% of total emissions coming from all Canadian sectors combined. (Please see  CAPP – Upstream Dialogue ).

Source: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

An ordinal distribution of the different sectors, by percent GHG emissions is an eye-opener, to wit –

Author came up with this GHG emissions distribution, by sector, using CAPP basic data

Out of the eight Canadian sectors monitored oil sands ranked second lowest emitter of GHG; the main culprit is “Transport” accounted for chiefly by passenger cars.

(Just an aside, and rather humorously , the book “Ethical Oil” by Ezra Levant, cites official statistics showing total oil sands GHG emissions being out-grossed by total GHG emissions from “enteric fermentation” — also-known-as flatulent gases being emitted by Canada’s livestock industry!)

And to continue with the discussion — it is interesting to note from the graph, above,  that oil sands total GHG emissions in 2009 (latest complete annual data) “ … is equivalent [only]to 3.5% of 2009 emissions from the U.S. coal fired power generation sector.”

The misconception or misinformation (call it what you like) that oil sands is “the dirtiest source of fuel available” — in terms of carbon footprint — which the good Congressman Waxman has publicly held onto was echoed by another high-profile American figure, U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson. National Post reported the American diplomat as having “… suggested repeatedly that Canada needs to ‘to do more’ to reduce the carbon footprint from the oilsands [sic], most recently in a Calgary speech July 19[, 2010].”

One thing for sure — the strides made by Alberta oil sands over the years to reduce carbon footprint are among the most remarkable continuing achievements of the industry. The dizzying pace of technological advancements is a reality in the Alberta oil sands. Right at this moment new ways to reduce the footprint are either being tested, developed, evaluated,  or are being emplaced. Sadly, however, such positive developments hardly get the same high-profile media treatment as the problems and challenges (and there a number of them, of course) in the oil sands.

I would assume these notable gentlemen have adopted the said publicly stated positions out of ignorance or as a result of having themselves been recipients of incorrect information.

Either way it seems ironic that the latest energy outlook report from US Energy Information Administration shows from 2008 to the present the US has relied, on average,  on coal-generated power for about 20% of its energy needs. In fact in terms of ranking, energy from coal which is at least 28 times dirtier than energy from oil sands ranks as the number three source of power consumption by the US. Which has led National Post contributing author W.A. Dymond to remark: “…in point of fact, this would appear to be a case of ‘Old King coal calling the oil sands black’ (or blacker).”[bold-faced and italicized fonts supplied].

Please see, also, table below which I excerpted from US EIA report, and enhanced by two columns I supplied to show calculated average share in energy production and consumption, by source.

Source: US Energy Information Administration

Even more ironically, based on more recent and very reliable reports,  the US may have to even intensify its reliance on coal-generated power. The same report, which I will touch on in a more specific manner at a subsequent post, has also quoted reliable sources that Germany, a leading light in Europe and the Western world in the drive towards a desired global shift to green energy, will also increase reliance on coal-generated energy.

What gives? Are you kidding — more coal-fired energy production and consumption? Well, that’s Realpolitik for you, mixed with a healthy dose of Realekonomiks (if there is such a word, BTW).

Tough decisions, I suppose, propelled among others by nuclear scare emanating from the unfortunate Fukushima nuclear reactor incident. But choosing between coal and oil sands, on the basis of which one is clearly less dirty (or more clean), which one would you rather have?


Let me pick up this particular thread of discussion at next post. In the meantime I would be happy to get any comments and reactions from you on the topic.

Thanks, and I hope for now you will at least remember to use “oil sands” (two words) as the correct term – conceptually and even grammatically.


About b., peternolasco

Customer Education Specialist with geoLOGIC Systems Ltd.; keen student and practitioner of corporate adult learning and learning communities in the context of organizational change and development.
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