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Syncrude's oil sands plant at Mildred Lake north of Fort McMurray, Alta

Kevin Van Paassen

During simpler times on the energy front in early 2009, a smiling Barack Obama came to Ottawa, charmed vendors in the Byward Market and spoke on Parliament Hill about the importance of addressing emissions from Canada's "oil sands."

Standing next to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill, the President compared Canada's oil-sands emissions to American coal emissions and said actions such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax would be needed to tackle emissions on both sides of the border.

Four years later, there is no global or even continental deal to tackle emissions. Many U.S. Democrats are strongly opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Alberta oil-sands bitumen south to the U.S. for refining.

Story continues below advertisement

And the oil sands? The President called them "tar sands" Tuesday as he outlined a new plan for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. That language raised questions as to whether he'll side with critics of the pipeline. A review of the President's past comments shows this terminology isn't new. He used the term "tar sands" in 2011 as well. The White House website shows the President and his spokespersons are sometimes asked by reporters to comment on developments related to the "tar sands."

Nathan Lemphers, a senior analyst with the Pembina Institute, said he isn't reading too much into it given that "tar sands" is a commonly used term in the U.S.

Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says both terms are used regularly in the U.S.. He said the industry saw positive signs in the President's speech and is not inferring anything from Mr. Obama's use of the term "tar sands."

In Canada the "oil sands" vs. "tar sands" debate is politically charged. The industry acknowledges the term "tar sands" was used for decades. However it now argues "oil sands" is the more accurate term because the product is a mix of bitumen and sand. Tar, in contrast, suggests a manufactured product like the tar used to pave roads, according to CAPP. Pembina says the shift to "oil sands" was a marketing move by the industry that began in the mid-1990s to make the product seem cleaner.

The term "tar sands" is frequently used by critics in the environmental movement. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was criticized early on in his leadership for using the term. In a visit to northern Alberta last year, he made a point of using the term "oil sands" in response to that criticism.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver played down the President's words.

"I don't think nomenclature's the most important thing," he said. "The reason we don't use that term is that there is no tar in the oil sands … I think much more important [is] the substance of what he said."

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