Oil Sands and Tar Sands: What's the Difference?

When discussing energy resources and environmental impact, two terms that often come up are "oil sands" and "tar sands." While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to distinct substances and processes. In this article, we will explore the differences between oil sands and tar sands and shed light on some interesting facts surrounding them.

What Are Oil Sands?

Oil sands, also known as bituminous sands or sometimes referred to as "unconventional oil," are a mixture of sand, water, clay, and a thick, viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. Bitumen is a semi-solid hydrocarbon substance that resembles a heavy, dense tar. Oil sands can be found in several locations around the world, with the largest deposits situated in Canada, particularly in Alberta.

One interesting fact about oil sands is their vast reserves. Canada's oil sands are estimated to contain the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. These reserves represent a significant potential source of energy, but their extraction and processing come with environmental challenges.

What Are Tar Sands?

Tar sands, on the other hand, is an older term that has been largely replaced by the more accurate "oil sands." Tar sands refer to the same deposits as oil sands, consisting of sand, water, clay, and bitumen. The primary difference lies in the terminology used.

Interestingly, the term "tar sands" was coined because of the misconception that the substance extracted was similar to tar. However, bitumen, while thick and heavy, is technically not tar. The shift to using "oil sands" reflects a more precise description of the resource and helps to dispel this misconception.

Environmental Implications

Both oil sands and tar sands extraction processes are associated with environmental concerns. The extraction of bitumen from these sands requires significant energy and water usage. It also produces greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. The land disturbance caused by mining these deposits can have adverse effects on local ecosystems and water quality.

Efforts have been made to develop more sustainable practices for oil sands extraction, including technologies to reduce environmental impacts. These efforts aim to minimize water use, reduce energy consumption, and lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with the extraction and processing of bitumen.


In conclusion, the terms "oil sands" and "tar sands" refer to the same natural resource deposits, consisting of sand, water, clay, and bitumen. The shift from "tar sands" to "oil sands" represents a more precise and scientifically accurate terminology. Both the extraction and processing of bitumen from these sands come with environmental challenges, and efforts are ongoing to develop more sustainable practices in the industry.

Understanding the difference between these terms is crucial when discussing energy resources and their environmental impact, as it helps to clarify the nature of these deposits and the challenges associated with their utilization.