In response to recent concerns over Mobile’s growing capacity in the petroleum distribution and storage industry, the Alabama Public Service Commission held a proceeding Oct. 28 at Government Plaza to accept comments and suggestions about the commission’s role in approving pipeline projects, the most recent being a proposed 2.4-mile pipeline replacement through the historic Africatown/Plateau community.

After the PSC approved a previous project through the city’s primary drinking water supply without the courtesy of a local hearing, the PSC was also eager to clarify its role in the process, highlighted several times throughout the two-hour proceeding as simply answering the question of whether a proposed pipeline is in “furtherance of industrial development.” Before public comments were accepted, PSC attorney Luke Bentley explained that state code does not define or provide a test as to how to answer that question, indicating that pipeline projects live or die by the three commissioners’ personal definitions.

Anticipating another concern, Bentley also said the pipeline developer, Plains Mobile, Inc., had filed paperwork indicating it does not intend to transport controversial tar sands through its pipeline network in Alabama.

Mobile Bay Sierra Club organizer Tom Hutchings motions to a tank farm owned by Plains Marketing during a recent tour of Mobile's petroleum infrastructure. A sister company of Plains has applied to replace a 2.4 mile pipeline to connect the tank farm to an existing pipeline further north.

Gabriel Tynes / Lagniappe

Mobile Bay Sierra Club organizer Tom Hutchings motions to a tank farm owned by Plains Marketing during a recent tour of Mobile’s petroleum infrastructure. A sister company of Plains has applied to replace a 2.4 mile pipeline to connect the tank farm to an existing pipeline further north.

“This proposal is to replace a 40-year-old pipeline that also transported crude,” Bentley said. “It is shipped to Mobile, then piped to other states. This pipeline will not be physically capable of transporting tar sands and its new route will decrease the chance of damage from digging by other parties.”

Many aspects of pipeline regulation are beyond the authority of the PSC, Bentley said, and it is not allowed to consider environmental questions.

“The PSC did not create the process and we cannot decide on our own to change this process,” he said. “The legislature is the proper body to address concerns about questions of industrial development or the Public Service Commission’s role.”

To that end, while State Sen. Vivian Figures, State Rep. Napoleon Bracy and State Rep. James Buskey represented the state’s minority Democratic party at the meeting and vocally opposed the project for its risks to a historic neighborhood, only a single representative of the state’s majority party was present. Freshman State Sen. Bill Hightower attended most of the meeting, saying afterward he was there gathering facts on his own accord.

“I felt like I needed to be here for educational purposes,” he said. “I came to learn about the threats and the differences regarding this pipeline and other pipelines being proposed like every other citizen. I wanted to make sure I understand the risks and what the public feels about it.”

Hightower wouldn’t speculate on whether the legislature would consider any new bills further regulating pipelines or the oil industry. Gov. Robert Bentley is also the chairman of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

“I can’t comment for my colleagues because I haven’t discussed it with them,” he said. “I would hope it’s a good idea.”

During public participation, administrative law judge John Garner largely answered questions on behalf of the commission, repeatedly reminding attendees of their limited role. But several issues of concern were identified, from the vague definition of industrial development, to who qualifies as a legitimate business when making an application in front of the PSC.

Casi Callaway, director of Mobile Baykeeper, asked whether there was a standard to determine whether a corporation was “real and viable,” or simply set up to meet the state’s loose requirements.

“That is primarily a question based on their filing and documentation with the Secretary of State,” Garner said. “In the condemnation process, the probate judge would make that determination.”

The PSC’s approval essentially grants a pipeline company condemnation powers in the state, although those actions must be realized in probate court. A separate project, the 45-mile Gulf Coast Pipeline, was recently halted by Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis after he determined the pipeline company, Plains Southcap, LLC., did not have the appropriate power of condemnation under Alabama law. Meanwhile, with the majority of that project complete, Davis’ ruling is scheduled for appeal in circuit court in November.

Local attorney Greg Vaughan read the PSC’s own mission statement aloud, then told the panel it didn’t match up to their own standard of review. The PSC’s mission is to “ensure a regulatory balance between regulated companies and consumers in order to provide consumers with safe, adequate and reliable services at rates that are equitable and economical.”

“You hit on very good point,” Garner told him. “Plains is not regulated. If they were, it would be a different inflow. This body would have different responsibilities.”

Vaughan further challenged the judge: “In your 26 years, have you ever found an applicant not in furtherance of industrial development?”
“No,” Garner said. “There has never been one challenged. It’s generally defined so we generally interpret it.”

Vaughan asked each of the commissioners to define how they interpreted their mission, but Garner advised them not to, saying it would be inappropriate considering the application on the table.

The new project would replace an existing pipeline connecting an existing Plains terminal facility on the Mobile River to a pipeline that flows to the company’s Ten Mile tank facility. From there, the company says, the pipeline “will allow crude oil to be shipped from the Mobile Terminal to Ten Mile Terminal and on to either the Capline pipeline running from Louisiana to Illinois or to Pascagoula, Mississippi via the pipeline currently being constructed by Plains Southcap.”

In support of its claims to further industrial development, the company claims the pipeline will cost $14.4 million and employ as many as 40 people to construct. It also says another pipeline will be retired, thereby “reducing the risk of pipeline failure and ensuring that the pipeline infrastructure is well maintained.”

During a community-organized tour earlier this month of areas that stand to be impacted by oil industry development, Prichard Mayor Troy Ephriam said despite his city’s high unemployment rate, he’s wary of claims by the pipeline companies and the PSC that the projects will benefit the area economically.

“Realizing the environmental threats and the threats to safety and health certainly are things to be considered, versus the aspects of whether there is a higher economic benefit that will trump those other concerns and I think there is no way those two can equal or balance out,” he said. “There has to be appropriate environmental due diligence, appropriate public health and awareness due diligence, and I think there needs to be some legislative action to protect the best interest of the citizens who are going to potentially be affected if there can’t be some level of negotiations as to how you can reroute these pipelines. I don’t think citizens want to stand in the way of economic development and industry, but if there is a foreseeable threat to public safety or a clear and present viable threat, then I think there should be some amends taken into consideration as to how we can all coexist and how we can live with this particular pipeline.”

As this publication was going to print, the PSC was holding a formal hearing in Montgomery to consider the application, but gave no indication Oct. 28 that it would be contested.

Joe Womack, an Africatown resident and organizer behind the Mobile Environmental Action Coalition, said he appreciated the PSC holding the proceeding in Mobile, but questioned their sincerity.

“Africatown has been increasingly industrialized during my lifetime, and it seems like it normally comes from decisions that are made in Montgomery,” he said. “They just look at a piece of paper, without ever talking to people in the neighborhood and say, ‘this needs to be done.’ We just want to have a voice and be heard. We want the state or the county or the city to just slow down and look at what they are doing and who it is affecting and consider how these projects impact a neighborhood.”