“Developing” the Hartselle sandstone formation in Alabama will be a multi-step process that involves mining or in situ extraction, then processing to separate the bitumen. When the bitumen is extracted from the sand and clay, the bitumen is processed into heavy crude oil, which is then transported to a refinery for further processing into petroleum products or exported overseas.
This post is the first in a series that will address bitumen mining, extraction and processing as it will presumably play out in Alabama, based on what is being revealed by companies actively pursuing oil sands mining in Utah and Kentucky.
Each step in the process is fraught with opportunities for contamination of the water, air and surfaces of northwest Alabama. Each step in the process will contribute in some way to the destruction of property values, quality of life, health and the natural beauty of northwest Alabama.
Representatives from MS Industries II, LLC have told the news media and business leaders repeatedly that they will do no fracking. MS Industries II, LLC representatives stated at their open house that they will do no fracking or in situ processing. That’s fine.
Fracking isn’t, by itself, the issue. In oil sands extraction, the process is known as steam-assisted gravity drilling or cyclic steam stimulation. This might be an issue in the future, but we’ll assume for the sake of this post that in situ underground extraction will not be an issue in northwest Alabama.
Here’s the thing: MS Industries II, LLC representatives never reveal that there’s more to “development” of these “God-given resources” than simply mining and then processing the Hartselle sandstone through their super-duper, top-secret “proprietary” solvent-based system. Getting the oil sands out of the ground doesn’t happen magically. And separating the bitumen from the sand and clay doesn’t happen through magic, either.
Step One: Surface Mining
The bitumen which is of interest to the fossil fuel industry is found in North Alabama in the Hartselle sandstone formation. There’s also an asphaltic limestone that has been mined in the past in northwest Alabama. We’ll focus for now on the Hartselle sandstone.
In the land area acquired by MS Industries II, LLC and TMS Newco, LLC most of the Hartselle sandstone is believed to be at or just below the surface.
The first step in the process will involve digging up the earth to get to the Hartselle sandstone formation to get to the oil sands or asphaltic sandstone (or whatever the industry wants to call it on any given day).
Surface mining can be performed in a variety of ways. In the old days, the coal industry called this strip mining. Then the coal industry discovered that strip mining didn’t generate a good vibe when proposed to the humans who live in the area that would be affected by the mine. So, to improve the vibe, the fossil fuels industry and its PR team came up with the term surface mining because it seems more benign (and it encompasses a wider-range of activities, like quarrying).
Based on PR photos provided by US Oil Sands, Inc. and Arrakis Oil Recovery, LLC (acquired last year by Archer Petroleum, a Canadian company), the surface mining of the Hartselle sandstone formation in Alabama would involve a series of open pit quarries.
To create these open quarries, all surface vegetation will be excavated away. That means all trees will be cut and/or excavated, all grass, all wildflowers, all “weeds,” all the topsoil will be removed. Surface mining involves stripping all vegetation and topsoil away from the surface to get to the desired substance, in this case Hartselle sandstone.
We don’t know the size of these quarries because the existing operations in Utah and Kentucky are still in the experimental stage, although US Oil Sands, Inc. in Utah claims to have received all necessary permits based on its experimental quarries and is now moving full-speed ahead as the “first permitted commercial operation in the US.”
Here’s a screen capture of a company PR photo of an oil sands mine in Kentucky (shown here for purposes of public comment and criticism):
Here’s a screen capture of an industry slide showing an 1990s-era oil sands mining project in Wyoming (shown here for purposes of public comment and criticism):
Here’s a citizen’s video of the test pit at the PR Springs operation in Utah:
The current status of the Kentucky project(s) is more nebulous. One company representative told someone I know that they are currently producing 1,000 barrels a day at their Kentucky facility.
Here’s a citizen’s video of an Arrakis Oil Recovery LLC mine in Kentucky from 2012:
Back to the northwest Alabama project. If we extrapolate from these photos and videos of what the experimental quarries or pits or surface mining operations look like in Utah and Kentucky we can begin to see how the landscape of northwest Alabama will be changed.
It’s well-documented that the presence of surface mining operations and quarries have a direct, negative impact on residential and non-industrial commercial property values. Negative means property values go down. Research on these effects will be summarized in a future post.
Don’t believe the word pictures the industry representatives paint for you when they claim that oil sands mining in northwest Alabama will be pretty, safe, and monitored by state environmental regulators.
Digging up the earth never is pretty, it presents numerous opportunities for negative human health and environmental effects, and it won’t be monitored in Alabama. If violations ARE detected, enforcement in Alabama is minimal–the small fines imposed are never enough deter future violations. The fines are treated as a cost-of-doing-business.
Once the site has been mined out, there will be a process of reclamation. That comes at the end, whenever the mining site has been fully mined. I’ll cover reclamation topics in a future post.
Who knows how long it might be before reclamation of a given mining site begins…..all depends on the size of the mines, the quality of what the mining company finds, how much is there, how fast the mining company digs it up and hauls it out, whether the mining company stays in business long enough to finish the reclamation, whether the bond is sufficient to reclaim if the mining company goes out of business.
I say “mining company” because nothing prevents MS Industries II, LLC from selling their assets to another company before or after they get all the necessary permits. And MS Industries II, LLC is only one of the plethora of companies with an interest in “developing” Alabama’s mineral resources.
Step Two: Transport to the Processing Facility
Representatives of MS Industries II, LLC keep saying there will be “no in situ processing.” That means the Hartselle sandstone and significant portions of surrounding earth must be transported from the surface mining “quarry” to a processing facility.
This stage of the process will involve two phases:
A. Likely on-site storage for the Hartselle sandstone that has been extracted and is awaiting transport to the processing facility.
B. Transportation on county roads.
On-site Storage of Mined Hartselle Sandstone
It is unlikely that dozers and excavating equipment will load the earth directly into an awaiting dump truck. It is more likely that the Hartselle sandstone and associated topsoil, clay, and other rocks will be piled up at some location around the quarry or open-pit mining site.
When it’s dry the particulate matter (dust particles containing everything from fine dust and silica to benzene, arsenic and mercury) will be available for transport by wind to contaminate our air and invade our lungs.
When it rains, the particulate matter, benign and toxic can wash into creeks and wetlands. Because the earth has been disturbed by excavation, some of the heavy metals once safely trapped in the clay and sandstone might be released and available to seep into aquifers and wash into streams. More on these potential effects in later posts.
Transportation of Mined Hartselle Sandstone
Meanwhile, a steady stream of dump trucks and other heavy-duty trucks will be parading in and out of the mining sites carrying loads of Hartselle sandstone and associated dirts and rocks to the processing facility.
Won’t it be safe and enjoyable driving to work, school or shopping caught in a never-ending convoy of dump trucks hauling Hartselle sandstone to a processing facility in Spring Valley, Wolf Springs or wherever they put it?
Won’t it be enjoyable sitting in your yard while a parade of dump trucks pass by from dawn until dark?
I know that the Shoals cycling community enjoys riding in the rural areas to be mined. I regularly see riders in the area. I don’t expect they will get much pleasure dodging dump trucks on their rides. Shoals cyclists: Enjoy the rides while you still can.
Step Three: Bitumen Separation
Once the Hartselle sandstone and other dirts and rocks arrive at the processing facility, they will be piled up for processing, which will require separation.
Again, we know very little about the process that MS Industries II, LLC will use, other than it’s “proprietary.” Company officials tell us the process is environmentally-friendly and involves some type of solvent.
Bitumen Extraction Patents
US Oil Sands, Inc. and Archer Petroleum both provide details on company websites about their patented technologies for separating bitumen from the soil and clay.
MS Industries II, LLC representatives simply tell us they have a super-duper, top-secret proprietary formula that’s safe. Trust us, they say.
Hard to know what the MS Industries II, LLC proprietary formula might be. If you search the patent records for patents on bitumen extraction technologies, you’ll find lots of them. Patents are public, by the way. So keeping the patents a secret seems odd, especially since US Oil Sands, Inc. and Archer Petroleum have revealed their patented processes.
What’s Left After Processing?
Once the bitumen is separated, the US-version of oil sands processing results in, essentially, two main products: Bitumen which can be further processed into usable forms and “clean” sand.
The bitumen might be processed at the processing facility or at another company’s operations elsewhere in northwest Alabama and shipped out as heavy oil by rail or barge to a refinery. Or the bitumen (mined asphalt) might be used locally for asphalt production (a whole different set of issues). Or the bitumen (mined asphalt) might be shipped out by rail or barge. More on what’s known about the US-version of bitumen processing in a future post.
The “clean sand” could also be a marketable product for the operator. Depending on the quality of the sand, it might be usable as frac sand for shale and gas fracking operations. Or the sand might be sold to local sand and gravel companies that supply the construction and road building industry.
Summary of the System
So, what we know today is this:
- Hartselle sandstone has to be mined. Surface or near-surface Hartselle sandstone will be removed through surface mining in the nature of open-pit mines like quarries. All surface mining requires removal of all vegetation.
- The mined product must be stored while awaiting transport to the processing site.
- MS Industries II, LLC has a super-duper, top-secret propriety formula that it claims is safe.
- Post-processing we have:
- Bitumen, which requires storage, transport and further processing, or asphaltic rock that might be used locally in asphalt paving.
- “Clean sand” that might be sold to construction, road building suppliers or to frac-sand providers.
- A small percentage (perhaps 5%, based on disclosures by US Oil Sands, Inc. ) of processed effluent which must be disposed of, usually as discharge into a stream or river.
- Damaged land that must be reclaimed into some usable condition. The extent and scope of reclamation is an unknown until regulations are written and permits are issued.
- Since MS Industries II, LLC or TMS Newco, LLC acquired large tracts by warranty deeds, it is unlikely those companies will display a human landowner’s stewardship concerns about biodiversity and soil quality. In short, the scope of reclamation on company lands will likely be quite different than reclamation of mined land on leased property.
I will delve more deeply into these topics and processes in future posts.