Q: Let’s start with a simple question: What is MAST?
Stephens: The acronym “MAST” comes from McIntosh, Axis, Saraland and Theodore, the four communities near Mobile, Alabama, where more than 25 chemical facilities are located. That’s what we mean when we talk about the MAST area or the MAST Corridor. And MAST also refers to the MAST Initiative, which is an economic growth strategy for the Alabama chemical industry, a partnership that includes Alabama Power, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and a growing number of public and private entities with an interest in promoting the continued growth of the chemical sector in our state.
Q: What else can you tell us about the MAST Initiative?
Stephens: The MAST Initiative began when Alabama Power commissioned multiple independent studies of the Mobile region to evaluate existing infrastructure and assets to support chemical industry growth. The goal of the studies was to identify issues affecting the future growth of the industry and estimate the potential impact on the region under various growth scenarios.
Q: Why is the chemical industry an important target for economic development efforts?
Stephens: It’s important for several reasons. Shale gas production has more than doubled during this decade, and that unprecedented access to domestic natural gas has greatly increased the competitiveness of the American chemical industry. That has provided a big boost to the manufacturing sector, which is reflected in job creation numbers, increased payrolls and tax revenues. In Alabama, every job created in the business of chemistry generates 7.1 jobs elsewhere in the economy, so the multiplier effect alone makes the chemical industry an important target.
It’s also worth pointing out that, basically, chemicals are in everything. I read recently that more than 96 percent of all manufactured goods are directly touched by the chemical industry. Forest products, aerospace, automotive, food, healthcare — you name it, and chances are that chemicals are in there somewhere. Many chemical companies process raw materials such as crude oil and natural gas into more refined products that are used throughout industries.
Finally, chemical companies are innovators. As an industry, they are consistently focused on improving efficiencies, looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment and developing more and better leading-edge products. As it has with research and development in LEDs, solar cells, electric vehicle batteries, water desalination, advanced materials for durable clothing, agricultural solutions, nanotechnology, additive manufacturing and life sciences — to name a few — chemistry will continue to help define the direction of technological change.
Q: What advantages are available to companies located in the MAST Corridor?
Stephens: Again, the answers are numerous. Start with the basics: Companies operating in the MAST Corridor have direct access to the nation’s 11th-largest port by volume and five Class 1 railroads. At nearly 1,300 miles, Alabama’s inland waterways system is the sixth-largest in the country, with access to over 15,000 miles of inland and intercoastal waterways. Along with the presence of a skilled labor force, those advantages ensure that the MAST Corridor will remain a strong base of operations for the chemical industry for decades to come.
In addition, Alabama and the MAST Corridor have a strong utilities infrastructure, including electric, natural gas, water and wastewater services and a comprehensive range of utility providers with a proven commitment to supporting development efforts. There are plenty of available sites for both stand-alone operations and co-location opportunities. The state and the MAST Corridor are in attainment with federal environmental permitting requirements, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management provides a one-stop permitting process. And there are state and local programs that provide qualified prospects with tax incentives, closing funds and workforce development support.
Q: What is the economic impact of the chemical industry in the MAST Corridor?
Stephens: Chemicals are Alabama’s second-leading export product, with annual revenue of $2.3 billion in 2018. Over the past 10 years, the Gross Regional Product for chemical manufacturing in the MAST Corridor has increased by 81 percent.
Chemical industries in the MAST Corridor employ a total of more than 4,000 Alabamians — and that number is on an upward trend, growing by 10 percent since 2010. Combined annual payrolls for chemical companies in the MAST Corridor total about half-a-billion dollars, a number that’s also growing.
Q: Are there particularly pressing issues or needs to be addressed to optimize the potential for continued development of the MAST Corridor?
Stephens: In terms of our goals for the MAST Initiative, the primary focus initially is simply on doing everything possible to ensure that chemical industry prospects are aware of the opportunities and advantages of operating in the MAST Corridor, and that the Corridor reaches its full economic potential. We want to help create jobs and pave the way for long-term economic growth.
Looking beyond that, the most substantial obstacle is the lack of sufficient petrochemical feedstocks. One way that can be overcome is by investing in a distribution pipeline to introduce new feedstocks and provide an alternative for companies that now rely on facilities in Louisiana and Texas.
Completion of a pipeline would also create additional jobs through construction, expansion of existing facilities and the addition of new ones. According to a study completed in 2015, that would create up to 140,000 new jobs, with an economic impact of nearly $25 billion.
Q: With all of that in mind, how would you outline the strategy for marketing the MAST Corridor to both prospects and existing businesses?
Stephens: MAST recently sponsored two major conferences, both held in San Antonio in late March: the IHS Markit World Petrochemical Conference and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers International Petrochemical Conference. While the sponsorship of the AFPM event is general in nature, MAST was the official Wi-Fi sponsor of the WPC, meaning that when attendees log into the WPC’s Wi-Fi network for the conference, they were taken to the new MAST website. Going forward, we’re looking at other potential conference sponsorship opportunities.
We’re also creating updated marketing materials, becoming active on LinkedIn and other social media outlets and recruiting local industry and other allies in the MAST Corridor to support the initiative. We’ll be working through various channels to highlight the advantages of the Corridor, make contacts, gain exposure and generate positive word-of-mouth. In June, the Mobile Area Chamber will highlight MAST in their monthly publication.
One other aspect of our marketing is supporting the efforts of the chemical industry to reverse the negative light that has been shed on chemicals in the past. The industry is having ongoing, open conversations about sustainability, how to hold themselves accountable and promote the safe and sustainable use of chemicals. We think that’s a worthy effort, and we want MAST to be supportive in every way we can.
Q: Why is the MAST Initiative important to you personally? How did you come to take on this role?
Stephens: The thing that’s most important to me about the MAST Initiative is changing the negative narrative around chemicals and communicating the message that chemicals are vital to our economy and our everyday lives. Think of all the products you use each day, things that make your life healthy, productive and safe. These wouldn’t exist without our chemical industry.
Although I have worked in the utility industry for over 15 years, my background is in chemical engineering, so chemicals have been near and dear to me for a long time. I have many friends and relatives who work in the chemical industry, so anything I can do to promote its growth is a win in my book.