Alabama: The Next Tar Sands Frontier?

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Food & Water Watch Blog

Alabama: The Next Tar Sands Frontier?

If 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.

Alison Grass

Alison Grass is a researcher for the water program at Food & Water Watch.