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April 14th, 2014

Alabama: The Next Tar Sands Frontier?

By Alison K. Grass

Keep Alabama the BeautifulIf you’re like me, you probably have a special spot in your heart for your hometown and home state. I grew up in Alabama, in the countryside, in a house surrounded by several sprawling acres of trees, farmland and open space. Even though I now live hundreds of miles away, I still am protective of the people who live there, their health and the beautiful landscapes and natural wonders that coexist in the appropriately termed, “Alabama the Beautiful.”

So last year when I learned of a secretive plan to auction 43,000 acres of public land in the Talladega and Conecuh Nation Forests for potential fracking and drilling, I grew concerned and wanted to know more. Fortunately, public outcry delayed the sale of the land.

Now, an equally concerning development has come to my attention: Alabama may open up its northwestern Lawrence, Franklin and Colbert Counties to tar sand oil extraction, in order to become a “major oil-producing state.” MS Industries has already bought around 2,500 acres of land in Alabama counties.

Tar sands oil has received attention recently through the debate about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Bitumen, a form of petroleum extracted from tar sands, is an extremely thick, black hydrocarbon. Because it’s so viscous it must be diluted so it can be transported by pipeline. Called “dilbit” for short, it’s a corrosive cocktail rich in heavy metals, sulfur and sediments that can grate against insides of a pipeline, increasing wear and tear and the likelihood of pipeline failure. In fact it’s responsible for one of the worst and most expensive oil spills in U.S. history when in July 2010, a pipeline ruptured near a tributary of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, spilling as much as 1 million gallons.

In July 2013 Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who also serves as chairman of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, announced a partnership with Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant to begin studying the Hartselle Sandstone, which crosses paths in each state. In a press release the governors touted that they have a lot to learn from Canada since it’s been developing tar sands oil for some time. Well I certainly agree – Canada should be used as a prime example – of why developing the Hartselle Sandstone is a shortsighted and irresponsible idea. 

The tar sands of northern Alberta are the fastest growing site of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and the source of widespread documented toxic contamination of local watersheds. ‘Canada’s Mordor’ [Mordor is dark and barren landscape in Lord of the Rings] produces bitumen, the dirtiest oil on earth. This is no model for Alabama,” advises Maude Barlow from Council of Canadians.

Methods used to extract tar sands oil are dirty and environmentally damaging. One technique is open-strip mining, which completely devastates land. Typically, trees are clear-cut, swamps, marshes and wetlands are drained, and entire forests are removed. When tar sands are too far underground to be accessed from open pit mining, a method called “in situ extraction” is used. It drills and injects hot steam underground to liquefy the bitumen away from the sands then pumps it to the surface.

Moreover, production of tar sands oil is energy intensive, releasing vast quantities of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions into the air and large amounts of water are needed to produce the crude oil. The residual toxic mining waste is then contained in massive impoundments called tar ponds. In Canada, these toxic ponds have leaked bitumen and chemicals into the Athabasca River and groundwater resources. With Alabama’s Lawrence, Franklin and Colbert Counties sitting just below the Tennessee River, tar sands extraction would put a major water-body, its tributaries, and the people and ecosystems that rely on it in jeopardy.

6 Comments on Alabama: The Next Tar Sands Frontier?

  1. Sheree says:

    Inviting all who care about this to join the fight. You can sign up for our email newsletter here: or via the Facebook page: Stop Alabama Tar Sands Mining.

    Thanks for spreading the word about this vitally important issue.

  2. Evan Riddle says:

    They’ll tar and feather you and run you or of the Tennessee Valley on a rail. Don’t even start. I was raised there. Jobs are needed desperately, other than the current growth industries which are hospice, geriatric and funeral services. All the young people left. I did 20 yrs ago. You can only build so many strip malls and burger joints.

    • John Crowder says:

      You need to come back to the Shoals area and spend some time surveying the actual industrial and commercial sectors. You will find that there is a diverse industrial/commercial economy in this area that belies the description you have submitted. Sure, there is lots of retail activity and that produces substantial tax revenue, but that situation is a natural consequence of the geographical location of the Florence-Muscle Shoals area relative to the retail user public. It would be unnatural and even perverse for that kind of marketing opportunity to have been neglected.

      As to the funeral services industry–where do you get THAT notion? I have lived her 34 years, and can confirm that this is not by any means a significant growth industry in the area. As to hospice growth, that industry has found a niche nationwide and provides services not formerly available. It serves the dying who otherwise might live out their final days and weeks in a dreary hospital environment and reduces the expenses the family has to bear at the end of life.

  3. Barbara Correro says:

    I cannot believe that we are destroying the Earth so completely and so quickly for money for the already wealthy oil and gas folks. It is scary and disgusting.

  4. John Crowder says:

    MS Industries held a water discharge permit for its first strip-mining operation and associated tar sands processing plant, but the permit, never acted upon, has now expired and the company will be required to submit a new application for any future waste water or storm water discharges. Their first permit sneaked in under the wire, since their permit application was publicly advertised by Alabama’s insensitive environmental agency (ADEM) in a newspaper within a county where none of MS Industries’ mining or processing activity was being considered and where readership of that particular newspaper is virtually nonexistent. The activities of the company and ADEM are now being tracked closely by well-informed critics/opponents of tar sands mining and any future permit applications will receive intensive scrutiny by a coalition of highly competent, broadly-experienced scientists and engineers.

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