Generally speaking, people who are opposed to the extraction of bitumen in NE Alberta prefer to refer to the sands as “tar sands”. The oil companies and the governments of Alberta and Canada prefer the sound of “oil sands”. “Bitumen sands” is in some ways more correct, but it’s a mouthful and not everybody will know what you are talking about. The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that “oil sands” sounds cleaner and nicer than “tar sands”.
I have decided to stick with “oil sands”. One reason is that actual opinion research conducted by Angus McAllister found, despite the opinions of oil companies and environmentalists, that in Canada outside of Alberta, “oil” actually has worse connotations than “tar”. Quoted in The Tyee, he said:
“Everybody thinks tar is worse,” McAllister told the Tyee. “But when you look at the way language is used, people talk about oil spills, oil cartels, oil lobbyists, Big Oil. I’ve never heard people get upset about ‘Big Tar’ or ‘Tar Tankers.'”
And it’s precisely this long string of negative historical associations that makes people profoundly distrustful of anything relating to oil, he said.
It is true that the name “tar sands” was the term used by early European explorers in Alberta. However, according to Wikipedia, “tar” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century referred to the by-product of the distillation of coal, and earlier than that, wood, and was mainly used for protecting and caulking wooden boats.
People may object that the product we would recognize as oil is produced from the sandstones in Athabasca only after much refining. That’s true, but we have no problem with referring to chalcocite or malachite mining operations as “copper mines”.
Added on 17th Jan 2015:
Once upon a time, it seems, the Alberta Government was perfectly happy with name “tar sands”.
(hat-tip David Climenhaga)