Sand mining operation in Wisconsin, Photo by Ted Auch, 2013

Chieftain’s Wisconsin Frac Sand Mine Proposal

Potential Land-Cover Change and Ecosystem Services
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Chieftain Metals Corp, a relatively large mining company, recently proposed to develop nine silica sand mines in the Barron County, Wisconsin towns of Sioux Creek and Dovre, as well as adjacent Public Land Survey System (PLSS) parcels.1 Here we show that the land that Chieftain is proposing to convert into one of the state’s largest collections of adjacent silica sand mine acreage (like the one shown above) currently generates $8-15 million in ecosystem services and commodities per year.

Background

Sand, often silica sand, is used in the hydraulic fracturing process of oil and gas drilling. Including sand in the frac fluid helps to prop open the small cracks that are created during fracking so that the hydrocarbons can be more easily drawn into the well. To supply the growth in the oil and gas industry, bigger and bigger sand mines are being developed with four factors being critical to this expansion:

A Map of the St. Peter Silica Sandstone Geology Across the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma

Figure 1. St. Peter Silica Sandstone geology across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma

  1. The average shale lateral is getting longer by 50-55 feet per quarter and the average silica sand demand is increasing in parallel by 85-90 tons per lateral per quarter with current averages per lateral in the range of 3,500-4,300 tons (Note: These figures stem from an analysis of 780 and 1,120 Ohio and West Virginia laterals, respectively.)
  2. The average silica sand mine proposal throughout the Great Lakes is increasing exponentially.
  3. The average sand mine is targeted at non-agricultural parcels disproportionately. As an example we looked at one of the primary Wisconsin frac sand counties and found that even though 6% of the county was forested and nearly 50% was in some form of agriculture, 98.2% of the frac sand mine area was forested prior to mining. An already fragmented landscape with respect to threatened or endangered ecosystems is becoming even more so, as the price of sand hits an exponential phase and the silica industry all but abandons its positions in Oklahoma and Texas.
  4. The primary geology of interest to the silica sand industry is the St. Peter Silica sandstone geology, which includes much of Southern Minnesota, West Central and Southern Wisconsin, as well as significant sections of Missouri and Arkansas (Figure 1).

Sand Mine Proposal Land Use Footprint

To quantify the land-cover/land-use change (LULC) of these proposed mines, we extracted the parcel locations from WI DNR’s Surface Water Data Viewer using the company’s construction permit.2 These parcels encompass approximately 5,671 acres along the edge of what US Forest Service calls the Eastern Broadleaf Forest (Minnesota & NE Iowa Morainal, Oak Savannah) and Laurentian Mixed Forest provinces (Southern Superior Uplands).

Using a now-defunct WI DNR program called WISCLAND we were able to determine the land-cover within the aforementioned acreage in an effort to determine potential changes in ecosystem services and watershed resilience. The WISCLAND satellite imagery was generated in 1992, so it provided a nice snapshot of what this region’s landscape looks like absent silica sand mining.

In our joining of the PLSS and WISCLAND data we determined that 2,684 acres (47%) are currently covered by forests, namely:

Land-Cover and # of Polygons across ten land-cover catagories across the Chieftain Silica Mine Proposal

Figure 2. Chieftain silica sand mine proposal’s land-cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Forest Cover Across Six Forest Types

Figure 3. Chieftain proposal’s forest cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI

Forage crops and grasslands occupy 2,010 acres (35%) across 331 polygons averaging 7 acres scattered across the proposed mining area. Corn and other row crops account for 825 acres (15%) of Chieftain’s proposal, randomly distributed across the area of interest. Collectively, these land-cover types account for 22% of all polygons averaging 5.7 and 4.7 acres, respectively. Shrublands account for ≤1% of the Chieftain proposal (36 acres) averaging 3 acres spread across a mere 12 polygons (Figures 4 and 5).

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Agricultural and Shrubland Cover Across Six Types

Figure 4. Chieftain proposal’s agricultural & miscellaneous cover across 5,671 acres, Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Cover Across Six Land-Use Types

Figure 5. Chieftain proposal’s land-cover by acreage across 5,671 acres, Barron County, WI

Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Wetland Cover Across Seven Community Types

Figure 6. Chieftain silica sand mine proposal’s wetland cover across 5,671 acres in Barron County, WI.

Seven types of forested and shrub-dominated wetlands occupy 101 acres (1.8%) of Chieftain’s PLSS parcels, with an average size of four acres spread across 49 discrete polygons. Wetlands are clustered in three sections of the proposed mining area, with the largest continuous polygons being adjacent 160 acre “Wetland, Lowland Shrub, Broad-leaved Deciduous” and 88 acre “Wetland, Emergent/Wet Meadow” polygons along the area of interest’s eastern edge (See Figure 6 right).

Land Value

In an effort to quantify the value of this aggregation of parcels we calculated annual plant and soil productivity, as well as crop productivity, in terms of tons of carbon and nitrogen3 lost using established WI forest, crop, and freshwater productivity values.4-6 

It is worth noting that the following estimates are conservative given that we were not able to determine average above/belowground ecosystem productivity values for the wetland and barren. Additionally, our estimates for crops and grasslands did not include belowground productivity estimates, which likely would increase the following estimates by 20-30%.

1. Forests

The aforementioned-forested polygons accrue 44,274-90,969 tons of aboveground CO2. This means that if we assume the average forest in this area is 65-85 years old, the Chieftain mine proposal would potentially remove 3.3-6.8 million tons of built up CO2 equivalents. This figure is equal to the per capita CO2 emissions of 202,800-416,700 WI residents. The renewable wood generated on this site has a current market value of $418,516 to $654,125.

If we assume that the price of CO2 is somewhere between $12 and $235 per ton the forested polygons within Chieftain’s proposal currently capture (remove from the atmosphere) $4-17 million worth of CO2 annually.

Additionally, this area generates 23,262-45,447 tons of CO2 via soil processes such as litter decomposition and root production (i.e., 1.8-3.4 million tons over the average 65-85 year lifespan of these forests). The annual value of these belowground processes in terms of soil fertility (i.e., soil organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus) is somewhere between $569,962 and $1,029,662 or $43-77 million over the 65-85 year period used in this analysis.

2. Forage Crops and Grasslands

The 1,018 acres of forage crops are currently generating 6,526 CO2 tons per year, which is equivalent to the per capita emissions of 400 WI residents (Note: This carbon has a current value in the range of $417,700-$848,200). The 992 acres of grasslands are capturing 6,600-12,600 tons of CO2 per year and if we assume the average grassland parcel in WI is 5-15 years of age these polygons have captured CO2 equivalent to the per capita emissions of 4,000-7,700 Wisconsinites. Together these two land-cover types capture $840,300-2,518,000 worth of CO2 annually. Again it is worth noting these values do not include any accounting soil processes, which are generally 20-30% of aboveground productivity.

3. Corn, Other Row Crops, Shrublands

The 860 acres of corn, miscellaneous row crops, and shrublands are currently generating 10,450-10,980 CO2 tons per year, which is equivalent to the per capita emissions of 640-670 WI residents. Using the same assumptions about time in grassland (i.e., average Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) tenure) and the 65-85 year assumption used for forests for shrublands we estimate these three land-cover types annually capture CO2 equivalent to the per capita emissions of 8,600-11,030 Wisconsinites. Together these three land-cover types capture $682,420-1,498,030 worth of CO2 annually.

The total average value of commodities produced on the 1,843 acres of cropland is $462 per acre or $851,272 annually.

4. Open Waters

This small fraction of the Chieftain proposal captures 134 tons worth of CO2 annually with a value of $8,590-17,650.

Potential CO2 Capture and Storage Removal associated with the Chieftain Silica Mine Proposal, Barron County, WI

Total Quantifiable Monetary Value

In summary, the nine Chieftain frac sand mines if approved would use land that currently generates $8.77-16.63 million in ecosystem services and commodities per year. Historical and future land-use potential valuations are generally not accounted for in mineral lease agreements. This analysis demonstrates that such values are nontrivial and should at the very least be incorporated into lease agreements, given that post-mining reclamation strategies result in lands that are 40% less productive. If these lands are converted to sand mines, their annual values would drop to $5.0-9.5 million post-development.

Questions about the impact of such operations on LULC in the Mississippi Valley are becoming more and more frequent. For example, families such as the Schultz in Trempealeau County are signing permanent conservation easements. Doing so allows them to continue farming and allocates some acreage to the restoration of oak savanna and dry prairie, considered by the WI Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as “globally imperiled” and “globally rare,” respectively.

References & Footnotes

  1. It is worth noting that Chieftain is taking a huge gamble with this proposal. It stands to reason that such risky ventures are necessary given that the company’s share price has plummeted to $00.15 per share since its IPO days of around $5.50-6.00. These gambles could either catapult Chieftain into the frac sand mining big leagues or relegate it to the bench, however.
  2. Chieftain Silica Sand Mine Proposal, Barron County, WI Review, page 4
  3. We used carbon and nitrogen as their importance from a greenhouse gas (i.e., CO2, CH4, N2O), biogeochemical, and soil fertility perspective is well established.
  4. Burrows, S.N., Gower, S.T., Norman, J.M., Diak, G., Mackay, D.S., Ahl, D.E., Clayton, M.K., 2003. Spatial variability of aboveground net primary production for a forested landscape in northern Wisconsin. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 33, 2007-2018.
  5. Klopatek, J.M., Stearns, F.W., 1978. Primary Productivity of Emergent Macrophytes in a Wisconsin Freshwater Marsh Ecosystem. American Midland Naturalist 100, 320-332.
  6. Scheiner, S.M., Jones, S., 2002. Diversity, productivity and scale in Wisconsin vegetation. Evolutionary Ecology Research 4, 1097-1117.

Thanks to Jim Lacy at the Wisconsin Sate Cartographer’s Office, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Regulatory Gaps for Train Spills?

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data & Technology

On January 26, 2015, the Columbian, a paper in Southwestern Washington state, reported that an oil tanker spilled over 1,600 gallons of Bakken Crude in early November 2014.  The train spill was never cleaned up, because frankly, nobody knows where the spill occurred. This issue highlights weaknesses in the incident reporting protocol for trains, which appears to be less stringent than other modes of transporting crude.

Possible Train Spill Routes


To follow the most likely train route for this incident, start at the yellow flag, then follow the line west. The route forks at Spokane – the northernmost route would be the most efficient. View full screen map

While there is not a good place for an oil spill of this size, some places are worse than others – and some of the locations along this train route are pretty bad.  For example, the train passes through the southern edge of Glacier National Park in Montana, the scenic Columbia River, and the Spokane and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Significant Reporting Delay

The Columbian article mentions that railroads are required to report spills of hazardous materials in Washington State within 30 minutes of spills being noticed. In this case, however, the spill was apparently not noticed until the tanker car in question was no longer in BNSF custody. Therefore, relevant state and federal regulatory agencies were never made aware of the incident.

Both state and federal officials are now investigating, and we will follow up this post with more details when they are made available.

A Bird’s Eye View of Pipeline Oppositions

By Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

New York State is not the only area where opposition to fracking and its related activities is emerging. A 108-mile proposed PennEast pipeline between Wilkes-Barre, PA and Mercer County, New Jersey is facing municipal movements against its construction, as well. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will likely carry 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. According to some sources, this proposed pipeline is the only one in NJ that is not in compliance with the state’s standard of co-locating new pipelines with an existing right-of-way.1

PennEast Pipeline Oppositions

Below is a dynamic, clickable map of said opposition by FracTracker’s Karen Edelstein, as well as documentation associated with each municipality’s current stance:


Click here to view map and legend fullscreen.

Additional Projects and Pushback

In Ohio, many communities are working on similar projects to prevent over 40,000 miles of proposed pipelines according to recent news reports.

And in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, municipalities are working to ban, reroute, or regulate heavily the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline (opposition map shown below):

MA Opposition Map

Northeast Energy Direct Proposed Pipeline Paths and Opposition Resolutions in MA & NH

Why is this conversation important?

Participation in government is a beneficial practice for citizens and helps to inform our regulatory agencies on what people want and need. This surge in opposition against oil and gas activity such as pipelines or well pads near schools highlights a broader question, however:

If not pipelines, what is the least risky form of oil and gas transportation?

Oil and gas-related products are typically transported in one of four ways: Truck, Train, Barge, or Pipeline.

Truck-Spill

Drilling mud spill from truck accident

Megantic-Train

Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment

Barge-Sand

Using a barge to transport frac sand

Pipeline-Construction

Gas pipeline construction in PA forest

Trucks are arguably the most risky and environmentally costly form of transport, with spills and wrecks documented in many communities. Because most of these well pads are being built in remote areas, truck transport is not likely to disappear anytime soon, however.

Transport by rail is another popular method, albeit strewn with incidents. Several, major oil train explosions and derailments, such as the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013, have brought this issue to the public’s attention recently.

Moving oil and gas products by barge is a different mode that has been received with some public concern. While the chance of an incident occurring could be lower than by rail or truck, using barges to move oil and gas products still has its own risks; if a barge fails, millions of people’s drinking water could potentially be put at risk, as highlighted by the 2014 Elk River chemical spill in WV.

So we are left with pipelines – the often-preferred transport mechanism by industry. Pipelines, too, bring with them explosion and leak potential, but at a smaller level according to some sources.2 Property rights, forest loss and fragmentation, sediment discharge into waterways,  and the potential introduction of invasive species are but a few examples of the other concerns related to pipeline construction. Alas, none of the modes of transport are without risks or controversy.

Footnotes

  1. Colocation refers to the practice of constructing two projects – such as pipelines – in close proximity to each other. Colocation typically reduces the amount of land and resources that are needed.
  2. While some cite pipelines as relatively safe, incidents do occur quite often: ~1.6 incidents per day.
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FracTracker is offering four paid, spring 2015 internships that run mid-February through mid-August out of the following offices:

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FracTracker interns are current college or graduate students who aid in conducting research, gathering and analyzing data, writing articles, managing the website, and mapping geo-located data. Paid interns are expected to work 15 hours per week for ~26 weeks and are compensated $11/hour. This position is not eligible for health benefits.

Update: The deadline for this application was January 26, 2015. The application process has now closed. Learn more about internships with FracTracker.