Alabama Oil and Gas Board hits pause on tar sands regulations

Alabama’s Hartselle sandstone—a geological formation containing a thick, liquid form of petroleum called bitumen—can range in thickness from 0 to 150 feet, according to a report by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.   (© SELC)

Communities in northwest Alabama are breathing a sigh of relief, as plans for opening the area to asphaltic mining for oil sands (also known as tar sands or asphaltic sandstone) found in the local Hartselle sandstone formation seem to have stalled for now.  

Nearly three years after the state Oil and Gas Board was tasked with establishing regulations for surface mining of oil sands, the board recently announced it is no longer actively developing those regulations, citing a lack of industry interest and low oil prices.

An agreement between the Alabama and Mississippi governors to study the states’ oil sands deposits further piqued interest in Colbert, Franklin, and Lawrence Counties as possibly viable areas to mine for the dense, extra-heavy crude oil called bitumen found in oil sands.

Over the last several years, a company called MS Industries in Wolf Springs, Alabama, southeast of Tuscumbia, has purchased hundreds of acres of privately-owned land with plans to surface-mine the sandstone and extract the bitumen using a proprietary process. Those plans set off intense public opposition from residents and grassroots organizations over the potential harm to air and water quality, and to the local agricultural economy.

Groups including the Shoals Environmental Alliance, Save Our Shoals, Alabama Rivers Alliance, and Tennessee Riverkeeper began organizing community meetings to keep citizens informed about the risks of tar sands mining, and to provide updates about several draft permits the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) issued to MS Industries for a proposed mining site close to the sandstone formation.

In its most recent permit applications, the company did not expressly propose intentions to mine for any tar sands. But given the interest in the region and the site’s location, SELC filed comments on behalf of local groups requesting that the permit contain additional measures to ensure protection of the receiving waters and surrounding natural resources.

SELC’s comments also raised the point that while ADEM’s permit prohibited the company from moving ahead with asphaltic sandstone mining, it did not include a clear definition for those activities and that, without clarification, the prohibition was vague and unenforceable. ADEM acted on SELC’s comments and included definitions for “asphaltic sandstone” and “asphaltic sandstone mine” in the final permit.

Although tar sands mining cannot happen any time soon, industry interest may heat back up if oil prices rise.

“The risks of causing irreparable harm for a dirty fuel are just not worth it, especially considering this huge energy shift we are seeing nationwide that shows we are becoming less and less reliant on polluting and expensive fuel sources,” said Birmingham Managing Attorney Keith Johnston. “We will continue to keep a close eye on this issue, and will be involved in next steps to ensure that any draft regulations are as protective as possible.”

Watch the 2014 Southern Exposure film on Alabama tar sand, "Paradise or Profit?"

Read more recent coverage about tar sands:

Between Cheap Gas and Carbon Caps, Oil Sands Face Uncertain Fate: Alabama Public Radio

Shoals Environmental Alliance praised for oil sand mining opposition: TimesDaily 

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