Is Bitumen Oil? Moving From Tar Sands to Sensible Solutions

Originally Published 1/23/2013 Georgia Straight

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.

NOTE: This video was produced by the TWN Sacred Trust Initiative in 2018 . For more information visit 

The National Academy of Science did a comprehensive study of Diluted Bitumen in 2016.

“In comparison to other commonly transported crude oils, many of the chemical and physical properties of diluted bitumen, especially those relevant to environmental impacts, are found to differ substantially from those of the other crude oils. The key differences are in the exceptionally high density, viscosity, and adhesion properties of the bitumen component of the diluted bitumen that dictate environmental behavior as the crude oil is subjected to weathering (a term that refers to physical and chemical changes of spilled oil)… 

…For any crude oil spill, lighter, volatile compounds begin to evaporate promptly; in the case of diluted bitumen, a dense, viscous material with a strong tendency to adhere to surfaces begins to form as a residue. For this reason, spills of diluted bitumen pose particular challenges when they reach water bodies. In some cases, the residues can submerge or sink to the bottom of the water body.”

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