Sunday, March 15, 2015

On Killer Whales, the Brontosaurus and the Tar Sands

When I was a child, growing up in Coquitlam in the 1970’s, our family had a membership at the Vancouver Aquarium. One of our favourite things was going to see the “killer whales”.  We loved to go see Skana and later both Skana and Hyak. When we were little we did not know the scientific name for killer whales (Orcinus orca) until it was used in the action/horror movie “Orca”. Orca was a Canadian version of “Jaws” and featured a wild, unstoppable, killing machine. You see that is what we were taught killer whales were all about back then. In the public perception they were fish-stealing terrors that were only good for machine-gunning. For those of you not familiar with that story, at one time Fisheries and Oceans Canada mounted a 50-calibre machine gun at Seymour Narrows north of Campbell River with the aim of shooting killer whales to save more salmon for fishers (ref). The one place where we were taught differently about these “killer whales” was the Vancouver Aquarium. There we came to know and love these majestic, empathetic and clearly intelligent mammals and I was always so proud of the orca sticker on our car (the Aquarium membership came with a stylized orca sticker for your car).  Happily, thanks to organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, our knowledge of these majestic animals has grown and we have come to learn that rather than killers, they are loving, family-oriented, animals and it is now considered passé to call them anything but Orcas. Sure there are some old fuddy-duddies who will use the old name, but their use of the name says so much more about them than it does the animal they describe.

As I child of the 1960s-1970s, I also grew up loving dinosaurs, but not in the way my kids understand dinosaurs. When I was a young boy we all knew that the greatest of all the dinosaurs was the “Thunder Lizard” known as the Brontosaurus. We watched the Flintstones who ate Brontosaurus burgers and knew that Brontosaurus ribs were so big they would tip the car over. Unlike modern kids, we only knew a few dinosaurs: the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Triceratops, the Pterodactyl and the Brontosaurus and we loved them with the affection known only to young children and their favourite things. As most everyone these days knows, the Brontosaurus never really existed. The most famous example was actually an Apatosaurus with a mismatched Camarasaurus skull (ref). But for a kid from the 1970s this beast was a thing of grandeur and long after it was considered unscientific, I insisted on using the term Brontosaurus for any Apatosaurus that I saw on TV (just like in XKCD (ref)). Now that I have kids and they watch “Dinosaur Train” on PBS Kids, I know more about dinosaurs than I would care to admit and know that it was childish of me to have taken so long to adopt the correct technical name.

This brings us to the topic of today’s post the “Athabasca Tar Sands”. Because petroleum science is not a topic of popular discussion, most people don’t recognize that tar is not a natural product; rather it is a distillation product. The traditional method of making tar involves high temperature decomposition of wood products or coal. A cool, try-it-at-home technique to make tar is presented at this web site and should be tried by every junior chemist to see what you can make in your own backyard. Back when the first Western explorers wandered into the Athabasca region they came across the expanses of bitumen and not being chemists called them “tar sands”. In a similar way, when early settlers stumbled upon bitumen seeps full of heated, semi-liquid asphalt they called them tar pits (ref).  The problem is that the “tar sands” contain absolutely no “tar”. They are not a distillation product of oil, coal or wood, but rather they are composed of bitumen mixed with sand. Bitumen is a very heavy, viscous form of crude oil, so to call a mix of bitumen and sand “tar sands” is about as accurate as calling an Apatosaurus a “Brontosaurus”.  

In a purely technical sense, the material should really be called “bituminous sands” as bituminous means “containing bitumen”.  Thankfully, for folks like me they didn’t choose this term as “bituminous” is quite the tongue-twister (I had a childhood stutter and still struggle with certain word combinations). Alternatively, one might consider calling the material “bitumen sands” (or “bit sands” as suggested by a person on Twitter). That being said, the Alberta Government didn’t go that route. As described above, bitumen is a form of crude oil. Since the material is made up of crude oil mixed with sand, the material could also be called “oil sands” and still be chemically correct. Ultimately this is the direction the Alberta government chose and similarly, the area was re-named the “Athabasca Oil Sands”. I’m not sure about my readers, but I am of the opinion that you call a person by the name they ask to be called. So even though someone might have a given name, I will use the name they ask me to use.  As such, based on the wishes of the Alberta Government, I call the material “oil sand” and the area the “Athabasca Oil Sands”. In a perfect world, the material should be called “bituminous sands” (or bitumen sands) but failing that, it is technically correct to call them “oil sands” and it is not to call them “tar sands”.  While I would love to rename the material it is really not my place to do so. That being said, if someone with some standing suggested a name-change (particularly to Bitumen Sands), I would be an early adopter, much in the same way as I use the term “Tyndall Gas” rather than the chemically incorrect term “Greenhouse Gas”.

The funny thing about the “oil sands” versus “tar sands” debate is that based on recent research, the name might not actually have the effect some people hope it will. As described in this article depending on where you live “oil sands” may have a more negative connotation than “tar sands”. This is very ironic given that the people who use “tar sands” are almost always the people who most strongly want the material to be left in the ground. What is even more counter-intuitive is that the activists who call bitumen sands “tar sands” are the same ones who will explain to you, in excruciating detail, that "it is not a killer whale, it is an orca". Meanwhile a scientist who would never walk up to a paleontologist and call their Apatosaurus a “Brontosaurus” will attend a presentation and tell an Albertan that bituminous sands are “tar sands”. Frankly, I am pretty tired of the discussion. As suggested in this article, the term isn’t doing what it was supposed to, which is to tarnish the industry. Instead, whenever I hear the term it just serves as an indication of the motivation of the individual doing the talking and their lack of insight and chemical knowledge.


Addendum: Several readers have suggested that the renaming of the “tar sands” to the “oil sands” was part of a formalized public relations campaign or “strategy”. Every reference to this strategy I have been able to locate, to date, has gone back to a single reference prepared by the Pembina Institute in 2005 (ref) that had the following line:

The strategy also called for efforts to improve public perception of the dirty sounding “tar sands.” The term “oil sands” was selected as the new brand name for tar sands, and they were framed as “a national prize14.”

As indicated, the Pembina Institute report references an Endnote (number 14) as support of this line. Endnote 14 references page 5 of a 2005 Report prepared by the National Task Force of Oil Sands Strategies of the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ref). A read of page 5 of the 2005 Alberta Report does indicate that the oil sands represent “a national prize” but says absolutely nothing about any “strategy” to rename the oil sands. If anyone can direct me to any original documentation about this public relations campaign I would appreciate it, but until they do so, I will suggest that the claim of some formal public relations campaign, while interesting and compelling, remains unproven in my eyes.



  1. I would add that the oil in those "oil sands" displays a set of properties which change as the sands are buried deeper. The material near the surface has a very high viscosity (it can exceed 1 million centipoise), and very little dissolved natural gas. But the material found at 800 meters had much lower viscosity and more gas (temperature and pressure are higher at 800 meters).

    In Venezuela they have a similar formation, but it is found deeper (I think as deep as 1400 meters). In some areas the reservoir sands were deposited right on top, or very close to, of eroded granite basement. The basement has a fairly high geothermal gradient, and it's possible to find reservoirs with a much higher temperature than their Canadian counterparts. This means the industry can drill horizontal wells and "cold produce" them at high rates (the very best wells produce over 2000 bopd of 8 degree API extra heavy). But these are exceptional, to achieve the recovery the government has targeted the Venezuelan extra heavy oil fields will require steam injection. However, the current industry strategy is quite haphazard, and thus far we see the primary production of the heavy oil which can be extracted from the deeper hotter zones. This will ruin the long term recovery, for reasons a bit too technical for me to explain.

  2. ... and pterodactyl is not a dinosaur: