Ben West: Is bitumen oil? Moving from tar sands to sensible solutions

A judge in Texas did something very interesting recently. He approved an injunction to temporarily stall the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, because the bitumen from Alberta to be pumped through that pipeline does not meet the definition of “oil”. 

So if bitumen isn't oil…what is it? Well clearly it's a fossil fuel, just like coal and gas. All fossil fuels are basically stored solar energy captured by bogs and other long-dead vegetation.

Over time, this dead plant matter is buried under intense pressure below the ground and transformed into fossil fuels. Some of that stored energy was closer to the surface and easier to access. As we’ve run out of the easy stuff, we have increasingly shifted to nontraditional fuel sources—like the mixture of sand, clay, and oil deep underground in Alberta. 

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, when bitumen was first discovered by oil-industry pioneers, they called it “tar sands” because of the viscosity and its appearance.

It's funny, really, that folks in the industry and their supporters get defensive about this terminology, given that it was a term invented by the industry—not by environmentalists.

Pro-oil folks now prefer to call it the “oil sands” after an aggressive rebranding effort in the last couple decades. Ironically, some public-relations experts suggest that “oil sands” is actually worse framing, since oil’s brand reputation is bad enough already. Nobody has ever heard of a “tar spill” or a “tar baron”, or the influence on our government from "big tar". 

Personally, I don't care what you call it… “Mordor” seems like a good fit. Who needs The Hobbit to see something truly out of this world? Just take a look at the massive earth-scarring open-pit mines and tailings ponds (more like toxic tailings lakes) in the tar sands.

“Tar sands” is a useful term in the sense that it highlights the difference between traditional oil and unconventional oil. As was recognized by the Texas courts, tar-sands oil is different. Not only is it harder and more expensive to extract, it is also low grade "sour" crude.

This means it’s high in sulphur, making the refining process even dirtier.  Extracting and “upgrading” bitumen requires massive amounts of water and natural gas, and to make it transportable it must be diluted with natural-gas byproducts.

To make things worse, that gas is increasingly coming from fracking operations that release methane, pollute groundwater, and cause earthquakes. 

In Canada we recognize the tar sands (as well as fracked gas) as unconventional fuel. Our federal government provides over a billion dollars a year in subsidies and tax incentives to oil companies extracting unconventional fossil fuels. 

Oil was bad enough before, but tar sands is even worse. It’s blended with even more dangerous cancer-causing chemicals like benzene to reduce its viscosity for pipelines. It must be transported at higher temperatures and pressures, which could increase the likelihood of cracking pipes causing oil spills—especially on old pipelines.  

Diluted bitumen also seems much harder to clean up. The 2010 Kalamazoo River spill showed us that when exposed to water and open air, chemicals used to dilute bitumen evaporated, leaving the oil to sink as tar balls and exposing locals to much higher levels of toxins in the air.

With traditional oil, recovering 15 per cent of the oil is considered “successful” (better described as 85 per cent failure). Cleaning up diluted bitumen is an even greater challenge.

Ultimately, we’re acting like a self-destructive alcoholic who is drinking paint thinner because he ran out of beer. Our addiction to fossil fuels was already destabilizing the planet’s climate and exposing increasing numbers of people to the effects of extreme weather conditions. Those in the global south—who have done the least to create the problem—are most intensely feeling the effects. 

To kick our addiction, we need to take stock of the ways we’re mistreating our global neighbours and change the way we think about our relationship to this planet. We can no longer take stored energy from beneath the earth’s surface and dump it into our atmosphere.

Disturbing the balance of energy on the planet is what’s causing climate change. There is enough energy coming from the sun to more than provide for all of our needs using existing technology. This energy expresses itself as wind, tides, and heat, all of which can be safely put to use if done responsibly. 

Perhaps the first step in this transition off fossil files is to recognize the differences between traditional fossil fuels and the increasingly dangerous unconventional fuels that are now becoming the norm. This awareness could help turn the tide. Stopping tar-sands pipelines is a fundamentally important step to move us from a trajectory that leads to more danger and toward a more sensible set of solutions. 

Ben West is a Vancouver-based climate activist and Healthy Communities Campaigner with the Wilderness Committee.



Sharon Daly

Jan 3, 2013 at 9:23am

Excellent article. I so hope this well explained information, makes it way into all the NewsPapers. I will certainly share this on Face Book.

Thank you for explaining things so well.

John Wise

Jan 3, 2013 at 3:36pm

Calling the tar sands the oil sands is like calling a wheat field a bread field.

gillian butler

Jan 3, 2013 at 6:20pm

I read somewhere ... that extracting oil from the tar sands is like sucking beer from a bar rag.

Dave Turchynsky

Jan 3, 2013 at 6:27pm

Replacing the real name, "Tar sands" with "Oil Sands" is increasingly becoming a public relations failure - adding the word "ethical" is just an insult to the intelligence of the Canadian public.


Jan 4, 2013 at 7:03pm

Laptops are made from petroleum products! ya!


Jan 4, 2013 at 7:23pm

Seriously, stop talking about pipelines and start talking about us and our cars. Oil leaks and improper oil changes on cars leak much much MUCH more oil than any spill.
I don't understand why so much energy is spent pointing fingers at the production of oil when we as the end users cause the demand and, as I already pointed out, spill WAY more with improper disposal and what should be considered negligent and cause for fines,the irresponsible enviromental disaster that is the vehicle with an oil leak. All one has to do is look at any parking lot to see the easiest preventable oil spill. Do people point fingers in order to avoid looking at their own irresponsible actions?
Anyway I hope somebody will read this and start talking about what the real problem

Zachary Smith

Jan 15, 2013 at 1:35pm

I quite liked the article, but I really wish the writer had cited the case caption and date of the legal case he refers to at the beginning. As it stands, his claim is unverifiable.

devil's excretment

Feb 17, 2013 at 4:22pm

devil's excretment = bitumen, essentially tar, and requires 12 barrels of water heated by burning natural gas to temperature at least 50 degrees Celsius, in order to separate one barrel of it from the tar sand. . .

man cannot admit he is addicted to oil.

oil is the drug. man can't get enough.

man needs this exchange.

Canada is the dealer.

It's time to deal so cut the deck.

why do elements of life on earth have to die to support man's addiction to oil ?

man is proving to be the most unintelligent species on earth.

fucking tragic.

every day i am grateful for fresh water to drink and bathe and wash my clothes and dishes.

water is life.

oil is the opposite of life.

our government and world leaders are corrupt to the core and have their life values ass backwards.

what's it like to wear a 10 gallon hat on a 2 pint head?

Bernadette Keenan

Mar 22, 2013 at 7:47pm

Good job Ben.

Bernadette Keenan

Mar 22, 2013 at 7:50pm

Car culture and pavement politic projects that promote fossil fuel dependency also need to be stopped from the "demand" end of the equation.