Sand mining raises emotions

Posted on November 5, 2017

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In our book “A world addicted to oil” [in Swedish] we discuss the fluid that is forced down a well when hydraulically breaking apart the rock around a well:

Large volumes of water are required to frack a well. According to an article from the University of Texas at Austin, each well in Eagle Ford usually requires on average 950 gl/ft or 11,800 litres per metre of horizontal well. For a length of 6,000 feet the water use is 5.7 million gallons (21.6 million litres) per well, or 136,700 barrels. The average amount for wells in Eagle Ford from 2009 to 2013 was 4.8 million gallons. Since water is 90% of the fracking fluid the sand which makes up 9.5% amounts to 0.6 million gallons (2.3 million litres). They use quartz sand that is as spherical as possible and, using a suitable conversion factor, this is estimated at 100,000 cubic feet of sand. In weight this is approximately 9.6 million pounds or 4,800 short tons (4,350 metric tons of quartz sand. Minnesota has suitable quartz sand and large amounts are freighted by rail from Minnesota to Texas.

On 30 October, the newspaper Uppsala Ny Tidning had an article with the title “Sand mining raises emotions in the USA”. The article is not online but the same article is to be found in another Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, with the title, “Sand mining raises emotions in the Midwest”. Both articles begin with, “In Donald Trump’s USA, fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas have increased in use. Therefore, the energy companies have been looking for a particular type of sand needed for production. The sand mining is creating employment in the Midwest but is tearing enormous holes in the landscape and threatens public health and the groundwater.”

The article describes how sand mining in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa is destroying the environment.

If one had not read the text on sand and fracking above it could be difficult to understand how sand and oil can be associated. The sand grains hinder the cracks in the rock produced by fracking from closing and the released oil can be pumped up. The sand grains that perform best are completely round. Round sand grains are produced if they are polished by flowing water e.g. from glaciers melting at the end of the last ice age. These sedimentary layers with polished sand grains exist in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The oil that can be produced by fracking is limited. Note that the sand in the Sahara is not suitable for fracking. The damage done to nature by mining of sand can become quite extensive. If they need to drill 200,000 wells for the expected production of oil by 2040 then there is a risk that large areas will be destroyed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

There are many who voted for Trump in these states. Minnesota stayed Democrat but in Wisconsin and Iowa they swung over to Trump and this was decisive for Trump’s election to the presidency. The question is whether the voters are aware of the environmental destruction that their choice of candidate prioritized.

A little more from the article:

The harbor town Winona has become something of a center for the sand industry since it lies in the middle of the area called the “driftless region”. This rolling landscape stretches through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa and is completely unique. For the energy companies it has attractive sand deposits. The sand grains are small, strong and perfectly round which makes them exceptionally suitable for the fracking process used in oil and gas production. But the populations living in these areas have been hit hard by the dusty reality when mining companies transport, clean and load the sand. Last year grassroots environmental organisations achieved something unique when they succeeded in obtaining a local ban on establishment of new sand pits.

Mike Kennedy describes how it has been in Winona in recent years – on the noise, the sand piles that reach as high as the tower on the town hall, and the chemical-laden cleaning process. He describes the doctors who warn that the residents may develop silicosis. But what really engages the population are not public health issues.

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