Tar is biodegraded oil, it can be a variety of long-chain hydrocarbon molecules. Tar is a byproduct of oil refining, like oil but with many impurities.
When oil leaks into the ocean, it goes under a number of chemical and physical changes that result in tar residue. A number of tar balls were discovered in the waters near the Gulf oil spill. Although these degraded oil composites have less toxins than the oil they came from, their stickiness presents other challenges to wildlife who often get stuck and suffocated by the substance.
Tar is oil from which the volatiles – low-density fractions that make the material fluid – have escaped. This can happen in natural environments, including the tar balls carlymfiske mentions (which come from natural sub-sea oil leaks as well as human-caused ones), as well as places like the La Brea Tar Pits and Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. It can also happen in refining, though generally tar is a fairly minor co-product of most petroleum refining.
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