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TOWN CREEK, Ala. — When Summer McCreless and her husband married 13 years ago, they decided to move back to rural northern Alabama to raise their family in the country. They bought 77 acres of land — a pasture for the cows, a small valley for the pigs, space for an organic farm. Then five years ago, she got a call from a realty agency in Georgia asking if they would be interested in selling some of their land.
“They never divulged the company’s name. They never said specifically what they wanted. And they wouldn’t name a price,” McCreless remembered. “I thought that was odd, and I started to do some research.”
When the real estate agent called again, McCreless asked for $1 million dollars an acre. The agency never called back.
Since 2010, an Atlanta-based company known as both SCS Industries and MS Industries II has bought approximately 2,500 acres of private land in northern Alabama and leased the mineral rights on thousands more. The company is hoping to strike oil by surface-mining bitumen-rich sandstone, commonly known as tar sand, which lays the foundation of much of northwestern Alabama.
Since the 1980s, studies by the state government have verified that a formation called the Hartselle Sandstone contains 7 billion to 8 billion barrels of oil, the third-largest deposit of oil sands in North America. While mining oil sands could be a new economic driver for the state, McCreless and other residents worry it could cost them their land and way of life.
Talk of oil underfoot
McCreless unlatched the gate to a back pasture, where her cows roam free on 40 acres. Her kids, 7-year-old Sky and 5-year-old Lavender, swung on the branches of a tree they named the “home place.” Down a sandy path, Sky and Lavender followed soft deer tracks to an ancient pecan tree, then to a small snaking creek, where the cows drank and Sky watched for a former pet turtle. This is the idyllic Southern childhood McCreless pictured for her kids.
After the second call from the realty company, she heard nothing for over a year. Then her husband’s cousins said a man named Steve Smith from MS Industries inquired about leasing their land.
“They are really good folks, country folks just like us,” McCreless said the cousins told her. “All they wanted to do was go around and drill core samples. No safety problems, just a small little hole. And if they found something, you could possibly make millions off leasing your property.”
The cousins leased a portion of their land that abuts the couple’s property. She was skeptical but curious. She invited MS Industries over and allowed workers to drill test holes — about an inch in diameter — all over her yard and pastures. They returned several times and said they hadn't found any indication of oil sands.
Smith, the CEO of MS Industries, told The Franklin Free Press, a local paper, that the company has drilled about 2,700 test holes looking for tar sands.It is unclear what, if anything, it has found.
Rumors of oil buried in the rock in northern Alabama have circulated since the early 1900s. McCreless said her father-in-law, who is in his 80s, remembers talk of oil underfoot. If you look closely along the sides of the road in North Alabama, you can see glossy, black chunks of asphaltic sandstone, or tar sands — rock that is a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen — part of the Hartselle Sandstone, which was formed more than 300 million years ago and spans 70 miles of northern Alabama. Some tar sand deposits are solid, others are in liquidlike flows, and there have even been reports of oil seeping into people’s water wells.
‘I describe this as the first energy project that I have not liked.’
Unlike normal drilling
In the mid 1970s, Joel Mize was working as a petroleum engineer for Shell in Denver when he found a report that detailed an oil exploration project in Double Springs, Alabama, a tiny town 20 miles from where he was born.
“It was a serious project. It had some serious science behind it, cost estimates, an economic scenario,” he remembered. Nothing ever happened with the project, but he stayed cautiously tuned to his home state.
For decades, talk of oil sands was only rumor, but by 2011, with the price of oil topping $100 a barrel, the tar sands of Alabama began to look more like gold. In 2013, the governors of Alabama and Mississippi signed a pact to study oil sands in the two states. The Alabama legislature tasked the state’s Oil and Gas Board to write regulations for the mining of tar sands.
Alabama has long hosted industrial projects like steel mines and coal pits, and those industries have made the state prosperous, Mize acknowledged.
“There have been families that have been saved,” he said. “Poor, struggling farmers who moved into coal camps and were able to make a living for their wife and children.” (Over past decades many coal pits have been covered in quick-growing pine trees and iron mines turned into state parks.)
But Mize opposes the tar sands project.
“I describe this as the first energy project that I have not liked,” he said. In his 50 years as an engineer on oil projects, he said it’s the first time he has stood on the other side, with the environmentalists.
Tar sands mining, he believes, is different from normal oil drilling or coal mining because of water. The Tennessee River cuts a half moon through northern Alabama, and beneath the earth are three massive aquifers. In some places, the water is only 10 or 15 feet below the surface. Mize worries that drilling will break a thin oxidized skin separating the tar sands from the water flowing around it, polluting a main source of drinking water.
In addition, Mize warns that surface-mining will cause high emission of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — the same chemicals emitted when cars burn gasoline — which will pollute the air and are believed to cause cancer. A recent paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that emissions in the Canadian Athabasca tar sands are 100 to 1,000 times greater than previously predicted.
Regulating a nascent industry
Mize sees himself as a Paul Revere, driving across the state to warn residents of what could happen to their land. On a rainy Sunday night in November, he presented his research to the Colbert County Historical Society in downtown Tuscumbia, Alabama. The meeting was more crowded than usual, with about 50 middle-aged and elderly men and women listening to him explain how tar sands are mined.
He described two ways to separate the oil from the sand. A company can surface-mine big open pits and send the sand to a processing plant where the bitumen is removed. Oil buried deep in the rock, on the other hand, is extracted in a process similar to fracking. Two pipes are drilled horizontally through the rock; one blasts the sandstone with steam while the other collects the oil that drips from the rock.
After more than an hour and a half, Mize turned on the lights, and residents began to ask questions: If a company runs a pipe under our land, will it have to get permission? What will happen to the roads with all those trucks driving back and forth? What about noise pollution? One resident heard that people living near a drilling project in Kansas have reported earthquakes of 3.0 or greater for the first time ever. A woman talked of reports of a facility MS Industries built where guards in military fatigues who allegedly carry guns have threatened a local woman who cares for stray dogs.
There is a lot of speculation and few answers. Currently, no mining is taking place in Alabama, because the state has yet to form regulations that would guide tar sands exploration, but state organizations are preparing for the coming year if it starts.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) approves permits for projects that can affect the state’s air, water or land. The agency is required to advertise the permits in the nearest local paper so residents have 30 days to respond. When MS Industries’ permits were approved, ADEM printed them in The Huntsville Times, a paper published over an hour’s drive from MS Industries’ office noted on the permit. The ADEM’s spokeswoman Lynn Battle said The Huntsville Times was chosen because it has the largest circulation in the area, but multiple residents said they do not subscribe to The Huntsville Times, since there are several more popular papers in the area. MS Industries’ permit expired in August 2014 because of lack of construction.
Meanwhile, the state Oil and Gas Board has been tasked with writing the regulations that will be used to guide Alabama’s nascent oil industry.
“The last time this resource was investigated was 30 years ago, so it's time to look at a potentially large resource again,” said Denise Hills, director of energy investigations for the Geological Survey of Alabama. Hills said that the Alabama legislature and governor hope that research into oil sands will lead the U.S. “towards energy independence and more home-grown energy resources.” She said she is unsure when the regulations will be finalized, since there is no mining taking place in the state.
Lure of jobs and independence
Although McCreless never leased her land, many others have.
In 2013, Chris Wallace, who is a commissioner in Franklin County, leased the mineral rights on 160 acres of his 500-acre farm for 30 years.
“Some people are against [oil sands] and don’t want it mined, but I’ve got my right too, and I want it mined,” Wallace said.“Our natural resources are what has made this country strong, and these EPA tree huggers have forgotten all that.”
As a member of local government, he is excited about the prospect of energy independence for the U.S. and developing new industry in the area. MS Industries has promised that mining “would directly create several hundred jobs, with a broad range of wages, starting at $15 an hour. Out West, Utah’s tar sands hold 12 billion to 19 billion barrels of oil — nearly double Alabama’s. However U.S. Oil Sands, which drills there, promises only about 200 jobs.
MS Industries has an office down the road from McCreless’ house. Although Smith has spoken to the local press repeatedly, the company denied Al Jazeera multiple requests for an interview. When Al Jazeera visited the office, a group of men were piling into a half-dozen SUVs. MS Industries’ lawyer Charles Kelley took this reporter’s name and number and promised to call but never did.
MS Industries has told multiple news outlets that it has proprietary technology that can uncouple oil from rock. McCreless said that Smith told her the formula it created was so safe it could be drunk. In May 2014, MS Industries held an open house for residents, with barbecue and raffles. A local newspaper reported that about 1,000 people attended.
In October 2014, MS Industries filed a new permit with the ADEM to mine on 30 acres of its property in Lawrence County. In the application it specified that it will mine not for oil but for other materials. It said mining would result in jobs for the community. The permit has not yet been approved by the state.
With oil prices falling, it's possible that mining oil from sand has become economically unattractive. However, it does not appear that the company is leaving just yet.
“MS Industries has come out in public and said, ‘We are not dealing with tar sands anymore,’” McCreless said. However, she notes that directly after that statement, she saw a lot of trailers being moved onto its land.
“If a big business decides there is nothing in the area for them, they are going to leave and cut their losses and go,” she said. “They came here, and they are not gone, so that tells me something.”
As discussion of tar sands peaked last spring and summer, McCreless’ neighbor across the street put her house up for sale. McCreless said she has no plans to move.