Mobile Alabama: A Tar Sands Mecca in the Making

Read time: 9 mins

It took a while for the Alabama public to understand that their state is being transformed into a tar sands Mecca. Proposals for rail and pipeline transport and tar sands storage facilities were first presented in 2010, and by 2012, most were rubber stamped with no public input.

But in 2013, a handful of concerned citizens in the Mobile Bay Sierra Club and the newly formed Tar Sands Mobile Coalition cried foul. And now their cries are being heard.

Two of four proposed projects are on hold – The Plains Southcap Pipeline, which would pass through the Big Creek Lake watershed that supplies drinking water to Mobile and the vicinity, and the American Tank & Vessel project to build tar sands storage tanks in Africatown, a historic Mobile neighborhood.  

Still reeling from the BP oil spill, concerned citizens along the Gulf Coast are fighting back by educating themselves about the risks these tar sands projects present to their communities and then spreading the word to their neighbors, their elected officials and the media. 

September 17th delivered a big victory when Judge Don Davis dismissed Plains Southcap's condemnation lawsuit against Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS). This victory opens the door for landowners to fight back. At issue was whether Plains Southcap had authority to use eminent domain to condemn the land they wanted in the Big Creek Watershed in the first place. This judge ruled they did not.

There are currently four tar sands related developments in progress in Mobile, Alabama:

1. Arc Terminals and Canadian National are building a rail terminal in downtown Mobile. Canadian National is transporting heavy crude from Western Canada, known as tar sands bitumen, from Canada to Mobile via rail. The bitumen will be heated in order to get it on pressurized insulated cars that keep it warm, and then reheated to be able to get it off. The pressurized cars present worrying safety issues in the instance of derailment, and this process of transport uses a lot of energy.

2. Arc Terminals will build a pipeline to transport Canadian tar sands from the downtown rail terminal under the Mobile River to Arc's storage tanks on nearby Blakely Island, where capacity will be greatly increased. Tar sands and other petroleum products gathered there could then be transported through an aging pipe, under historic Africatown to the Ten Mile Terminal where it will meet the Plains Southcap pipeline.

3. The Plains Southcap Pipeline will go from Ten Mile Terminal, Alabama to Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Although Plains Southcap claims its pipeline will transport only conventional crude, and the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula claims it will not be processing tar sands, the infrastructure will be in place for them to accept tar sands crude should they choose to. The pipeline will be a high-capacity, 24-inch line able to move 150,000 barrels of product a day according to the Alabama Public Service Commission.

4. Storage tank expansion by American Tank & Vessel in Africatown will include tanks to hold tar sands and regular crude oil.

At a recent meeting attended by more than 200 people, Mobile mayor Samuel Jones said the Sierra Club knows more about these developments than he does.

He and Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson claim they were unaware of the Plains Southcap pipeline. It was approved after a 15-minute presentation by Plains Southcap at a meeting in Montgomery, AL held by the Alabama Public Service Commission on November 28th, 2011.

The only public announcements made about the meeting were four advertisements in local newspapers that omitted any mention of the key points of the project, including the pipeline’s route. At the hearings, Plains Southcap claimed the pipeline would lead to substantial job creation and domestic energy growth.

Factors like climate change and the resulting rising tides that will have a direct impact on the state's coastline were ignored, and questions about environmental impact and insurance liability for such high-risk projects were not raised before the permit was issued.  

Africatown resident Ruth Taylor Ballard says that being left in the dark on such matters is nothing new, unfortunately. The community hears about industrial projects when it is too late to do anything to stop them.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who serves as chairman of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, defensively asserts that the Army Corps of Engineers–with input from both the Alabama Public Service Commission and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management– signed off on the project. Although he has some concerns about safety, he trusts industry to perform safely. 

But Plains Southcap’s parent company, Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline (NYSE: PAA) has a far from spotless safety record.

The company’s spill record includes a 28,000 barrel oil spill on April 29, 2011 in Alberta, Canada, and the Bay Springs oil spill in Mississippi. The company recently agreed to a $44.25 Million settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency for violations from 10 other crude oil spills in the United States.

Plains Southcap’s pipeline is 70% complete, and Arc's expansion on the riverfront has begun.

New storage tanks have already been built on Mobile’s riverfront. And a multitude of Canadian National's black-painted railway cars move toxic heated bitumen though Africatown to downtown Mobile.

Trains with toxic cargo at downtown Mobile's terminal

American Tank & Vessel is planning more storage tanks for Africatown, a couple of miles from downtown Mobile in an area zoned for industry. There is concern that existing pipeline in the area could be used to transport tar sands crude, if that is what industry demands.

Africatown was included on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service on December 4, 2012. A core group of local elders fought to get this citation of the community’s historic importance, and hope it will help them in the fight to protect Africatown from tar sands threats. 

Community activist Ariela Philip Scraig, 84, a life long resident of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama. She helped Africatown get on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now fighting against tar sands developments.

The Tar Sands Mobile Coalition’s actions are slowing down these projects. The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) refused to give Plains Southcap permission to use its land in the watershed area despite the Army Corps of Engineers permit. Plains Southcap is suing MAWSS to condemn the land under eminent domain laws so they can move ahead.

They successfully argued that Plains Southcap, a limited liability corporation did not have the legal right to seek condemnation and asked that the case be dismissed. Plains Southcap can appeal or reroute the pipeline. Either way, the project is facing a major and costly delay.

Judy Hale, mayor of Semmes, a Mobile suburb, issued a stop work order when she found Plains Southcap had started construction before obtaining all the permits it needed and was not following state construction standards.

Federal Judge William Stelle upheld the stop work ruling against Plains Southcap, who challenged the order. Plains Southcap has said the delay is costing the company $124,000 a day.

Plains Southcap Pipeline in Semmes, Alabama where construction is at a standstill due to a stop work order.

During a recent meeting organized by the Tar Sands Mobile Coalition at the Mobile Bay Sierra Club, word spread that American Tank & Vessel had withdrawn its proposal to build more storage tanks in Africatown.

Despite this victory, the project can be resubmitted to the commission at any time.

“It’s like herpes,” said Dr. Rip Pfeiffer of Mobile, who gave a presentation at the meeting. “It's not going to go away. It's too much money and it will be back.”  

Africatown's Omar Smith points out that American Tank & Vessel withdrew its application because of a skipped step in the permitting process. With new public scrutiny of the project, it would have been turned down, meaning the company would have had to wait six months to resubmit. They are required to make a public presentation about the proposed new work to the impacted community before presenting it to the zoning board. Smith is sure they will try again after taking the proper steps. 

Watch Omar Smith and Joe Womac talk about tar sands development in Africatown: 

Plans for a new terminal on the Mobile River that would allow for greater quantities of Canadian tar sands crude to be delivered by train, a new pipeline to transport tar sands under the Mobile River, and more storage tanks dangerously close to Mobile’s downtown are all in the works.

The combination of toxic tar sands being stored and transported by rail and in pipelines, coupled with increased risk of mega storms due to climate change in an area already experiencing the effects of rising tides, makes these developments extremely risky. 

Mobile Bay Sierra Club Conservation Chair David Underhill says,

“Imagine a hurricane storm surge 25 or 30 feet high, which is what happened with Katrina, coming up the bay and the river. This could result in the release of several times more petrochemicals into the environment than the Exxon Valdez, and even the Alabama Department of Environmental Management permit asks if the area is within a projected area of a so-called 100-year flood plain.”

Despite increasing public pressure, Governor Bentley continues to support all of these tar sands projects. He and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant have teamed up to conduct a study on Hartselle sandstone, a natural underground resource that stretches from northern Alabama into northern Mississippi.

According to, “A recent study found an estimated 7.5 billion barrels of oil located in the reserves. Canada has proven to be a leader in oil sand recovery, and we hope through this evaluation process we can collaborate and share knowledge on best practices,” Bryant said.  

Neither governor seems concerned with the dire environmental consequences a slew of recent tar sands and crude oil incidents are having, including the Enbridge Kalamazoo spill in Michigan that is still being cleaned up three years later at a cost of over a billion dollars; the Mayflower Pegasus pipeline spill in Arkansas where tar sands rushed down residential driveways, forcing evacuation of a housing development and contaminating nearby waterways; the ongoing tar sands leak at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd’s Cold Lake project in Northern Alberta, out of control since June, or the Lac Megantic train derailment that killed 47 people when runaway crude cars exploded in the city’s center.  

In the meantime, local groups are making sure the word gets out. None of them wants to see Mobile become an environmental disaster zone.  

Storage tanks on the banks of the Mobile River for Canadian tar sands, or other petroleum products.

Joe Walmac stands next to a historic marker for Africatown's cemetery.

Train with toxic cargo passes by just a few feet from homes in Africatown.

Plains Southcap Pipeline on Airport Road in Alabama near the Mississippi state-line where construction is ongoing.

Dr. Rip Pfeiffer holds up a sign during a presentation he gave at a meeting held by the Mobile Bay Sierra Club and the Mobile Tar Sands Coalition.

Map of tar sand development projects in Mobile, Alabama. 

Map of the Plains Southcap Pipeline. 

All photos (c) Julie Dermansky.

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What is the required insurance for those rail cars?  As we've learned up in Canada the Lac Megantic trains only carried $25 million in insurance.

Capped insurance amounts to industry subsidy.  As a capitalist, I find that incredibly offensive.  It also tends to downplay the dangerous game the rail companies are playing, and give them an excuse not to upgrade their rail cars for better safety.  If there is an accident citizens have to pay out of pocket.

I need not point out that we use the same rail cars as Americans do and they are not very safe.  In Canada accident after accident has pointed to needing better rail car safety for transporting dangerous goods.

The rail industry itself is also transporting more and more toxic chemicals.  Here is an example of what is being carried;

Right now, shale oil is being shipped to Canada for tar sands diluent.  So that toxic stuff has to go both directions.

Appearently its hard to get information about car contents for your first responders in case there is an accident.  It may be the same in the US, I don't know.   We've had two derailments this year in Calgary, and the rail companies are unable to provide information on what is in the rail cars.  The represents a serious safety concern for your local fire departments.  Your first repsonders may want to know if the car can burn or explode in order to make decisions.

I can't figure out if Mobile, Al is  going to be a terminal, an upgrader and terminal or a refiner. There doesn't' seem to be a refinery in Mobile. A little help?

Looking at Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' PowerPoint you linked - I'm truly amazed at what Illinois is becoming - the freaking tar sands pipeline capital of the world. We're already getting tar sands going to two refineries outside of Chicago. Then there's Flanagan and Patoka lines sending the stuff west and south. Illinois has the world's best farmland. It's not like it's some barren hellscape like Alberta is. Easy Canadians. I'm kidding.

No offence taken. Once you get north of Edmonton, a lot of areas look like hellscapes.

What I'm not sure of is why they would need to heat the bitumen up to load and unload onto railcars. Wouldn't it be easier to dilute the bitumen like they do for pipelines? Or just leave it semi-solid. In the winter, when it's cold, bitumen hardens and poses much less of a hazard if spilled. You can just scoop it up in pieces.

Maybe you're onto something. Process tar sands just enough to remove inorganic matter up in Alberta. Ooze it into giant ice cube tray like totes and stack onto rail cars. Transport to the US or ship overseas. Off load using enormous articulating two handed robotic cranes that twist the totes so cubes of solid bitumen drop into giant open top tanks. Sending the solid bitumen trays empty may be a problem. What does Alberta need in return? 

That was probably Option X of the engineering feasibility study and got screened out as being silly. 

Oil and gas has tried all kinds of silly.  It is a very old industry.

1) One problem with coil drilling is that its hard to steer.  So one company built an entire rig that could rotate on the spot.  (Millions spent… Never worked..)

2) Rig hands die all the time from falling pipe or flying chains.  One company has decided to solve that with Iron Derrickman!  Able to lift huge tonnage and store pipes faster than any crew could.  (Also cheaper than having 4 guys who charge $120k a year.)

I'm sure this will work just fine until the day the robot forgets where zero is, or decides to drop a pipe on the BOP.

3) There was a DOE\Sandia report saying you could use layered pipe to build a communications link downhole.  They were recommending that companies take $2 million in pipe, throw that in the garbage, then buy $10 million in fancy pipe.  Another $100 million in R&D to change all your tool strings and you'd be set.

4) In a similar light they recommended high speed EM communications that would deliver 100k bits/s…  for 100 yards underground.  (Yeah… we already know where everything is that's 100 yards down.  Maybe we could use a wire or something for that.)

5) Oh!  Cased hole drilling!  Drill the hole 'pre-cased'.  Never worked and ignores all the now known issues with having good cement logs. $100's millions gone.

6) I've even been asked how come we don't use GPS when we drill.  As politely as I could, I asked, “Have you ever used a cell phone in a tunnel?” That question question came from an R&D manager.

Plans to do this shipping were probably drawn up long before the shale oil boom kicked in.

Michael pointed out to me that they can use Shale Oil for diluent.  Before that, oil companies were looking at importing foreign diluent (from fill in name of America's hated enemies here), and realizing that foreign content would render tar sands dilbit 'foreign' and therefore taxable.

Diluent also cranks up how toxic and dangerous the fuel is, so avoiding it is a good thing.  You'd also have to ship a heck of a lot of it up to Canada.  20%?

I'm guessing also the issue is selling raw bitumen straight from the well bores without upgrading or diluting would mean it's in a less usable, less transportable state, and therefore would not be as valuable and would need to be sold at a lower price. US customers would have to upgrade it at their end.

Here's the diluted bitumen by pipeline versus straight bitumen by rail argument from the folks at Pembina Institute. I guess it comes down to volume, weight and price. Environmental and health risk factors were pushed aside as outliers.

Who are those guys and why do they seem like US environmental NGOs?

Good find.  Thanks.

Pembina is a bit more than a Think Tank.  They do a variety things to make money, they do some think tank style work, they broker carbon trades (wind in Alberta is subsidiezed by Californian carbon credits), and they hire out their technical staff (who are educated, unbiased and competent) to consult.

Naturally they stand in sharp contrast to conservative Think Tanks (Fraser Institute) who are clearly brimming with talent.  :-)

I like the conclusion of that report.  “Earning Public Trust starts with Acknowledging The Risks“  As an engineer I've learned that you can't ignore problems.  You have to accept them, understand them, and finally you have to address them. This is pretty core to my concerns over the Global Warming Denial.

My wife took a public engagement course with some some co-workers and some oil field pipeline workers.  The things those guys said was disgusting; “Avoid speaking to the public at all costs.  Give as little information as possible.  Never tell the whole story.”  It sounds like their cunning plan is working…

So they are somewhat like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Pew, Breakthrough Institute, and on and on and on. 

I'm getting this sinking feeling that these groups were setup to buffer heirs of past generation's endeavors in natural resources exploitation than say a deep concern for the environment and the health of the huddled masses. Or - environmental NGOs were setup for Top-tier University environmental policy graduates - to pass some time until the hedge fund manager boyfriend proposes. The happy couple will need to bury some income somewhere.

Please note: hedge funds do provide something for society - it's just not clear what that something is.

Over the years, Pembina has been at the forefront of factual discourse.  Its sort of the logical version of carpet bomb denial.

“Please don't do this… but if you are, you should be concerned about this this and this.” Naturally that kind of logical thinking is an anathema business agendas, and typical conservative thinking.  They don't seem to be or use any parrots.

I don't think they are under the thrall of industry stake holders.  Indeed according to one of the loudest denial trolls here, Pembina is controlled by foreign powers, and since it influences the Alberta government, the Alberta government is under the direct control of foreign Environmental Groups. The evidence… Tides Canada funded Pembina, Desmogblog, David Suzuki, and David Schindler's research into Athabasca river basin pollution.  And (this is the criminal part) the Alberta Govnerment backed David Schindler's assertion that the tar sands were polluting the antire region.

Conspiracies know no bounds or logic.  Pembina is not liked up here.

From the Pembina website:

“The Pembina Institute is an organization unlike any other working to protect Canada’s environment today. We combine the research and technical capacity of a think tank with the values and advocacy of an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) and the entrepreneurial and business sense of a for-profit consulting firm. This equips us with a unique ability to employ multi-faceted and highly collaborative approaches to change”.

They've been doing consulting work for municipalities, public institutions and also (beleive it or not) for some of the largest oil & gas companies operating in Canada e.g. Suncor, Cenova, Shell, TransCanada, EnCana, Talisman, Total, etc. They combine research, advocacy and consulting.

Thanks. Why's there a Dot Org on its website?

Pembina seems like an EDF or a not for profit environmental consulting firm that offers policy steering. Here's a story on front groups. Here's a old saw: “Technical consultants don't do science, they do clients.”

The rest was copied from the link below

Dinner on Wednesday night was served at the Petroleum Club, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. On the Thursday morning, just before their return flight, legislators did have a brief meeting with a representative from the Pembina Institute, an Alberta environmental group that calls for responsible exploitation of the tar sands. According to the ALEC trip itinerary, this was to “provide the opposing point of view.”

Although Pembina does represent a different view from those that want completely unrestrained extraction of the tar sands, the group is not representative of those that oppose tar sands extraction. There are plenty of organizations that could have provided alternative viewpoints, particularly First Nation tribal leaders who are campaigning vigorously on this issue, but perhaps unsurprisingly they were not included. Even Pembina's – somewhat limited – opposing voice was not wanted during the tour of the oil sands facilities, and they were not invited to the lobbyist-sponsored dinners.

Yes, the fact that Pembina even uses the term “oilsands” shows their hand. For nearly a half century the oil industry itself referred to the regions with bitumen deposits as tar sands. The largest such region was known as the Athabasca tar sands for decades. Tar sands was the term used by engineers, oil industry magazines, press releases, newspaper articles and the government up until about 2001. Then oil sands became the “official” term.

Here's some more from the Pembina Institute website:

“Our goal is to advance responsible oilsands development, which we define as:

•capping the impacts of oilsands development within the limits of what science shows the ecosystem can support;

•shrinking the environmental footprint of oilsands development for every barrel produced; and

•ensuring a meaningful portion of the benefits of oilsands development are used to support Canada's transition to a clean energy future.”

The Alberta Government formed the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA) in 1974. So the term has been in use for a long time. The original name given to the oil deposits was “bituminous sands”.

I don't understand the negative feelings towards the Pembina Institute. They are a breath of green air compared to the usual nonsense emanating from Calgary via the Fiends of Science, Fraser Institute and Barry Cooper from the U of C.

My memory failed me and I got the dates wrong. According to oil industry historian David Finch, the term 'tar sands' has actually been part of industry lexicon since 1939:

Up until the 1960s everyone called them 'tar sands' and both terms were used interchangeably until about ten years ago when the Alberta government and Big Oil “officially” made the switch to oil sands. A year or two ago the CBC also made it official media policy to use 'oil sands'.

Of course, it makes about as much sense as calling a potato farm a 'french fry' farm. Tar, just as oil, can be made from bitumen. So the end product argument doesn't hold in favour of one term or the other.

I do agree with you about Pembina. They do good work, without which we wouldn't have a lot of detailed ammunition for criticism. They're also nice people, I've talked with a few of them. I am a little leery of their cozy relationship with Big Oil as well as their funding from the Rockefelers, however.

I don't actually fit the desmogblog concerns over pipelines\and bitumen.  I only want a carbon tax, and I figure the rest will take care of itself.  I'm OK with trashing the place.  (Sorry guys.. that's just me.)  I'm upset that the so called solution for tailings is to leave in a pond and hope its all clean later on.  There have been numerous alternatives that Alberta hasn't moved on.

My take on the carbon footprint of the tar sands is that most of it is from energy consumed in extraction and upgrading.  There is no reason that it can't be done with solar, wind or even BC Hydro.

I am finding all this grit on Pembina interesting to read.  One thing that strikes me is that environmental\political groups take on a stance that is close to their home.  I've seen a lot of information coming out of Pembina that is pretty negative on Alberta's Environmental efforts, and of course carbon foot print.  Yet they soldier on.  I don't feel I'm getting a green wash like that recent release from EDF on 'Green Completions'.

Anyways, I think Pembina has the right idea;

Greening the Grid outlines two scenarios for meeting Alberta's electricity demand. The more aggressive “green scenario” shows how Alberta could move from 70 per cent coal to 70 per cent renewable energy in just 20 years.

Note that Danny the Denier has a video on here. Daniel Smith is Alberta's 'Tea Party' leader.  She was booed on stage, on TV (CBC) in Alberta for saying there was no consensus on Climate Change.  Rumor has it that her party is now 'luke warmers'.