The term "tar sands" is a colloquialism used to describe the oil sands deposits found in northern Alberta. "Oil sands" is an accurate term.
The History of Alberta Oil
The term "Tar Sands" has been used by the oil industry for decades.
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. The engineers of Abasand Oils Ltd., at Fort McMurray, have for some time grappled with the problem and have worked out a treatment which appears efficient and economical. . . . . It is expected that trial runs will be made before the end of the year and that the plant will be in fill operation early in 1940."
- Mr. L. C. Drummond,
Secretary-Manager of the Alberta and North-West Chamber of Mines,
Published December, 1939 in The Pre-Cambrian
Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces
University opf Alberta Library
The Alberta Government's Position
Oil sands, oilsands or tarsands?
"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."
Your Feedback to CAPP
"Re: Oil Sands or Tar Sands? Interesting that you use the following "Oil sands is an accurate term because bitumen, a heavy petroleum product is mixed with the sand." Most people would have no hesitation in describing bitumen as tar. In fact the two terms are interchangeable. No-one that I know of would refer to bitumen as oil. The reason is for the name change is as simple as it is dishonest. Oil sands sounds cleaner."
- Charles Stewart, via Send Feedback to CAPP
"Until the 1960s, everyone called them the tar sands. At that point, primarily as a way of communicating more clearly what product would eventually come out of the bitumen, the Alberta government started calling them the oil sands.
Both terms were used interchangeably until about ten years ago when this topic became politicized by the opponents of the way the bituminous sands were being developed. Tar sands sounds more sinister to the ear now. The proponents of the development seem to make it a point to always call them the oil sands.
Politicization came with the relatively recent fights over all the complicated social, political, environmental and emotional issues that now surround this topic.
But talk to any of the old timers and they will use the two terms interchangeably. For the old dudes there is no emotion associated with either term.
I like to use both terms in conversation as a way to see how people react - and then I know a bit about their point of view.
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."
- David Finch, Historian