Organic farms near drilling activity in the U.S. and Ohio

The US Food, Energy, Water Interface Examined
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator

With the emergence of concerns about the Food, Energy, Water (FEW) intersection as it relates to oil and gas (O&G) expansion, we thought it was time to dig into the numbers and ask some very simple questions about organic farms near drilling. Below is an analysis of the location and quantity of organic farms with heavy drilling activity in Ohio and nationally. Organic farms rely heavily on the inherent/historical quality of their soils and water, so we wanted to understand whether and how these businesses closest to O&G drilling are being affected.

Key Findings:

  1. Currently 11% of US organic farms are within US O&G Regions of Concern (ROC). However, this number has the potential to balloon to 15-31% if our respective shale plays and basins are exploitated, either partially or in full,
  2. 68-74% of these farms produce crops in states like California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas,
  3. Issues such as soil quality, watershed resilience, and water rights are likely to worsen over time with additional drilling.

Methods

To answer this broad question, we divided organic farms in the United States into three categories, depending on whether they were within the:

  1. Core (O&G Wells < 1 mile from each other),
  2. Intermediate (1-3 miles between O&G Wells), or
  3. Periphery (3-5 miles between O&G Wells) of current activity or Regions of Concern (ROC).1

Additionally, from our experience looking at O&G water withdrawal stresses within the largely agrarian Muskingum River Watershed in OH we decided to add to the ROCs. To this end we worked to identify which sub-watersheds (5-10 miles between O&G Wells) and watersheds (10-20 miles between O&G Wells) might be affected by O&G development.

Together, distance from wells and density of development within particular watersheds make up the 5 Regions of Concern (ROCs) (Table 1).

Table 1. Five ROCs under this investigation and what they look like from a mapping perspective

Label Distance Between Wells Mapping Visual
Core < 1 mi  Table1_1
Intermediate 1-3 mi
Periphery 3-5 mi  Table1_2
Sub-Watershed 5-10 mi  Table1_3
Watershed 10-20 mi

We generated a dataset of 19,515 US organic farms from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) by using the Geocode Address function in ArcGIS 10.2, which resulted in a 100% match for all farms.2

We also extracted soil order polygons within the above 5 ROCs using the NRCS’ STATSGO Derived Soil Order3 dataset made available to us by Sharon Whitmoyer at the USDA-NRCS-NSSC-Geospatial Research Unit and West Virginia University. For those not familiar with soil classification, soil orders are analogous to the kingdom level within the hierarchy of biological classification. Although, in the case of soils there are 12 soil orders compared to the 6 kingdoms of biology.

The National Organic Farms Map

This map shows organic farms across the U.S. that are located within the aforementioned ROCs. Data include certifying agent, whether or not the farm produces livestock, crops, or wild crops along with contact information, farm name, physical address, and specific products produced. View map fullscreen

National Numbers

Figure 1. Total and incremental number of US organic farms in the 5 O&G ROCs.

Figure 1. Total and incremental number of US organic farms in the 5 O&G ROCs.

Nationally, the number of organic farms near drilling activity within specific regions of concern are as follows (as shown in Figure 1):

  • Watershed O&G ROC – 2,140 organic farms (11% of North American organic farms)
  • Sub-Watershed O&G ROC – 1,319
  • Periphery O&G ROC – 752
  • Intermediate O&G ROC – 455
  • Core O&G ROC – 183

Ohio’s Organic Farms Near Drilling

The following key statistics stood out among the analyses for OH’s 703 (3.6% of US total) organic farms. Figures 2 & 3 show how many farms are near drilling activity and injection (disposal) wells in OH. Click the images to view fullsize graphics:

 Figure 2. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Drilling Activity

Figure 2. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Drilling Activity

 Figure 3. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Injection (Disposal) Wells

Figure 3. OH Organic Farms Proximity to Injection Wells

Potential Trends

If oil and gas extraction continues along the same path that we have seen to-date, it is reasonable to expect that we could see an increase in the number of organic farms near this industrial activity. A few figures that we have worked up are shown below:

  • 2,912 Organic Farms in the US Shale Plays (15% of total organic farms)
    • 2,044 Crop Producers, 918 Livestock operations, 41 Wild Crops
  • 6,179 in US Shale Basins (31%)
    • California, 1,334; Colorado 297; Illinois 286; Indiana 334; Iowa 239; Michigan 504; Missouri 118; New York 834; Ohio 510; Pennsylvania 449; Texas 394; Wisconsin 271
    • 4,100 Crop Producers, 1,386 Livestock operations, 61 Wild Crops
  • 1,346 in US Tight Gas Plays (7%)
    • 948 Crop Producers, 434 Livestock operations, 22 Wild Crops
  • 2,754 in US Tight Gas Basins (14%)
    • 2,010 Crop Producers, 875 Livestock operations, 48 Wild Crops

Soils at Risk Due To Shale Activity

Another way to look at these five ROCs when asking how shale gas build-out will interact with and/or influence organic farming is to look at the soils beneath these ROCs. What types of activity do they currently support? The productivity of organic farms, as well as their ability to be labeled “organic,” are reliant upon the health of their soils even more so than conventional farms. Organic farms cannot rely on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or related soil amendments to increase productivity. Soil manipulation is prohibitive from a cost and options perspective. Thus, knowing what types of soils the shale industry has used and is moving towards is critical to understanding how the FEW dynamic will play out in the long-term. There is no more important variable to the organic farmer sans freshwater than soil quality and diversity.

The soils of most concern under this analysis are the Prairie-Forest Transition soils of the Great Lakes and Plains, commonly referred to as Alfisols, and the Carbon-Rich Grasslands or Mollisols (Figure 4 & 5). The latter is proposed by some as a soil order worthy of protection given our historical reliance on its exceptional soil fertility and support for the once ubiquitous Tall Grass Prairies. Both soils face a second potential wave of O&G development, with a combined 18,660 square miles having come under the influence of the O&G industry within the Core ROC and an additional 58-108,000 square miles in the Intermediate and Periphery ROCs. If the watersheds within these soils and O&G co-habitat were to come under development, total potential Alfisol and Mollisol alteration could reach 273,200 square miles. This collection of soils currently accounts for 43-47% of the Core and Intermediate O&G ROCs and would “stabilize” at 50-51% of O&G development if the watersheds they reside in were to see significant O&G exploration.

Figure 4. Prairie-Forest Transition soil - Courtesy EarthOnlineMedia

Figure 4. Prairie-Forest Transition soil – Courtesy EarthOnlineMedia

Figure 5. Carbon-Rich Grasslands soil - Courtesy USDA’s NRCS

Figure 5. Carbon-Rich Grasslands soil – Courtesy USDA’s NRCS

Figure6_BakkenSoils

Figure 6. The five soil orders within the Bakken Shale formation in Montana and North Dakota.

These same soils sit beneath or have been cleared for much of our wheat, corn, and soybean fields – not to mention much of the Bakken Shale exploration to date (Figure 6, above)

The three forest soil orders (i.e., Spodosol, Ultisol, and Andisol shown in Figures 7-9) account for 9,680-20,529 square miles of the Core and Intermediate O&G ROCs, which is 22 and 17% of those ROC’s, respectively. If we assume future exploration into the Periphery and Watershed ROC we see that forest soils will become less of a concern, dropping to 14-15% of these outlying potential plays, with the same being true for the two Miscellaneous soil types. The latter will decline from 28% to 25% of potential O&G ROCs.

Figure 7. Ultisol, - Courtesy of the University of Georgia

Figure 7. Ultisol – Courtesy of the University of Georgia

Figure 8. Spodosol - Courtesy of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Figure 8. Spodosol – Courtesy of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Figure 9. Andisol – Courtesy of USDA’s NRCS

Figure 9. Andisol – Courtesy of USDA’s NRCS

Figure 10. Histosol, - Courtesy of Michigan State University

Figure 10. Histosol, – Courtesy of Michigan State University

If peripheral exploration were to be realized, another soil type will have to fill this gap. Our analysis demonstrates this gap would be filled by either Organic Wetlands or Histosols, which currently constitute <200 and 529 square miles of the Core and Intermediate ROCs, respectively (Figure 10). For so many reasons wetland soils are crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystem services, wildlife migration, agricultural productivity, and the capture and storage of greenhouse gases. However, if O&G exploration does expand to the Periphery ROC and beyond we would see reliance on wetland soils increase nearly 15 fold (i.e., 16% of Lower 48 wetland soil acreage).

The quality of these wetlands is certainly up for debate. However, what is fact is that these wetlands would be altered beyond even the best reclamation techniques. We know from the reclamation literature that the myriad difficulties associated with reassembling prior plant wetland communities. Finally, it is worth noting that a similar uptick in O&G reliance on arid (i.e., extremely unproductive but unstable) soils is may occur with future industry expansion. These soils will, as a percent of all ROCs, increase from 7% to 9% (i.e. 10-11% of all lower 48 arid soil acreage).

What do these changes mean for the agriculture industry in OH?

If these future O&G exploration scenarios were to play out, we estimate 20-22% of Southern Acidic Forest, Prairie-Forest Transition, Miscellaneous Recent Origin, and Carbon-Rich Grassland soils will have been effected or dramatically altered due to O&G land-use/land-cover (LULC) change nationally (Figure 11). This decline in productivity is likely familiar to communities currently grappling with how to manage a dramatically different landscape post-shale introduction in counties like Bradford in PA and Carroll in OH. The effects that such alteration has had and will have on landscape productivity, wildlife habitat fragmentation, and hydrological cycles is unknown but worthy of significant inquiry.

These questions are important enough to have received a session at Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s (OEFFA) 2015 conference in Granville last month and were deemed worthy of a significant grant to The FracTracker Alliance from the Hoover Foundation aimed at quantifying the total LULC footprint of the shale gas industry across three agrarian OH counties. Early results indicate that every acre of well-pad requires 5.3 acres of gathering lines along with nearly 14 miles of buried pipelines – most of which are beneath high quality wetlands. This study speaks to the potential for 20-30% of the state’s Core Utica Region – or 10-15% of the Expanded Utica Region4 – being altered by shale gas activity.

Figure 11. National distribution of soil types within the 5 ROCs under consideration: 1) Forest Soils, 2) Prairie/Agriculture soils, 3) Organic Wetlands, 4) Miscellaneous soils, 5) Dry Soils.

Figure 11. National distribution of soil types within the 5 ROCs under consideration: 1) Forest Soils, 2) Prairie/Agriculture soils, 3) Organic Wetlands, 4) Miscellaneous soils, 5) Dry Soils.

Figure 11 Description:

  • Forest Soils – Northern and Southern Acidic Forests, Volcanic Forests,
  • Prairie/Agriculture – Prairie-Forest Transition and Carbon-Rich Grasslands,
  • Organic Wetlands
  • Miscellaneous – Recent and Intermediate Origins,
  • Dry Soils – Dry Calcium Carbonite and Clay-Rich Shrink/Swell Clays

Conclusion

The current and potential interaction(s) between the O&G and organic farming industries is nontrivial. Currently 11% of US organic farms are within what we are calling O&G ROCs. However, this number has the potential to balloon to 15-31% if our respective shale plays and basins are exploited, either partially or in full. Most of these (68-74%) are crop producers in states like California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Issues such as soil quality – specifically Prairie-Forest, Carbon Rich Grasslands, and Wetland soils – watershed resilience, and water rights are likely to become of more acute regional concern as the FEW interactions become increasingly coupled. How and when this will play out is anyone’s guess, but its play out is indisputable. Agriculture is going to face many staunch challenges in the coming years, as the National Science Foundation5 wrote:

The security of the global food supply is under ever-increasing stress due to rises in both human population and standards of living world-wide. By the end of this century, the world’s population is expected to exceed 10 billion, about 30% higher than today. Further, as standards of living increase globally, the demand for meat is increasing, which places more demand on agricultural resources than production of vegetables or grains. Growing energy use, which is connected to water availability and climate change, places additional stress on agriculture. It is clear that scientific and technological breakthroughs are needed to produce food more efficiently from “farm to fork” to meet the challenge of ensuring a secure, affordable food supply.

References and Endnotes

  1. The above regions were determined by generalizing a compilation of Oil & Gas wells generated by FracTracker’s Matt Kelso last March: Over 1.1 Million Active Oil and Gas Wells in the US.
  2. An additional 69 organic farms were geo-referenced in Canada and 7,524 across the globe for a similar global analysis to come.
  3. Description of STATSGO2 Database and associated metadata here.
  4. Core Utica Regions include any county that has ≥10 Utica permits to date and Expanded Utica Region includes any county that has 1 or more Utica permits.
  5. By the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee – Subcommittee on Food Systems in “Food, Energy and Water: Transformative Research Opportunities in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences”

11% of organic farms near drilling in US, potentially 31% in future

By Juliana Henao & Samantha Malone, FracTracker Alliance

Currently, 11% (2,140 of 19,515 total) of all U.S. organic farms share a watershed with active O&G drilling. Additionally, this percentage could rise up to 31% if unconventional O&G drilling continues to grow.

Organic farms represent something pure for citizens around the world. They produce food that gives people more certainty about consuming chemical-free nutrients in a culture that is so accustomed to using pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides in order to keep up with booming demand. Among their many benefits, organic farms produce food that is high in nutritional value, use less water, replenish soil fertility, and do not use pesticides or other toxic chemicals that may get into our food supply. To maintain their integrity, however, organic farms have an array of regulations and an extensive accreditation process.

What does it mean to be an organic farm?

The accreditation process for an organic farm is quite extensive. USDA organic regulations include:

  • The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substance.
  • No prohibited substances can be applied to the farm for a period of 3 years immediately preceding harvest of a crop
  • The farm must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones, such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied by adjoining land that is not under organic management.

There are additional regulations that pertain to crop pest, weed, and disease standards; soil fertility and crop nutrient management standards; seeds and planting stock practice standards; and wild-crop harvesting practice standards, to name a few. A violation of any one of these USDA regulations can mean a hold on the accreditation of an organic farm.

The full list of regulations and requirements can be found here.

Threats Posed by Oil & Gas

Nearby oil and gas drilling is one of many threats to organic farms and their crop integrity. With a steady expansion of wells, the O&G industry is using more and more land, requiring significant quantities of fresh water, and emitting air and water pollution from sites (both in permitted and unpermitted cases). O&G activity could not only affect the quality of the produce from these farms, but also their ability to meet the USDA’s organic standards.

To see how organic farms and the businesses surrounding wells are being affected, Ted Auch analyzed certain dynamics of organic farms near drilling activity in the United States, and generated some key findings. His results showcase how many organic farms are at risk now and in the future if O&G drilling expands. Below we describe a few of his key findings, but you can also read the entire article here.

Key Findings – Organic Farms Near Oil & Gas Activity

Explore this dynamic map of the U.S. organic farms (2,140) within 20 miles of oil & gas drilling. To view the legend and see the map fullscreen, click here.

Of the 19,515 U.S. organic farms in the U.S., 2,140 (11%) share a watershed with oil and gas activity – with up to 31% in the path of future wells in shale areas. Why look at oil and gas activity at the watershed level? Watersheds are key areas from which O&G companies pull their resources or into which they emit pollution. For unconventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing companies need to obtain fresh water from somewhere in order to frack the wells, and often the local watershed serves as that source. Spills can and do occur on site and in the process of transporting the well pad’s products, posing risks to soils and waterways, as well.

Figure 1, below, demonstrates the number of organic farms near active oil & gas wells in the U.S. – broken down by five location-based Regions of Concern (ROC).

Farm-Chart1

Figure 1: Total and incremental numbers of US organic farms in the 5 O&G Regions of Concern (ROC).

The most at-risk farms are located in five states: California, Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania. Learn more about the breakdown of the types of organic farms that fall within these ROCs, including what they produce.

Out of Ohio’s 703 organic farms, 220 organic farms are near drilling activity, and 105 are near injection (waste disposal) wells.

Conclusion

More and more O&G drilling is being permitted to operate near organic farms in the United States. The ability for municipalities to zone out O&G varies by state, but there is currently no national restriction that specifically protects organic farms from this industrial activity. As the O&G industry expands and continues to operate at such close proximities to organic farms in the US, there are a variety of potential impacts that we could see in the near future. The following list and more is explained in further detail in Auch’s research paper:

  • A complete alteration in soil composition and quality,
  • A need to restore wetland soils that are altered beyond the best reclamation techniques,
  • A dramatic decline in organic farm and land productivity,
  • A changing landscape,
  • Wildlife habitat fragmentation, and
  • Watershed resilience … to name a few.

PA feature image taken by Sara Gillooly, 2013

Shale Gas Development on Public Lands

By Mark Szybist and George Jugovic, Jr., PennFuture Guest Authors

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) and FracTracker Alliance have collaborated to create a unique GIS map that enables the public to investigate how shale gas development is changing the face of our public lands. The map allows viewers to see, in one place:

  • Pennsylvania’s State Forests, Parks and Game Lands;
  • State Forest tracts containing active oil and gas leases;
  • State Forest areas where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” from the surface lands and are owned by third parties;
  • State Forest lands that are to be protected for recreational use under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act;
  • The location of unconventional shale gas wells that have been drilled on State Forest and State Game Lands; and
  • The boundaries of watersheds that contain one or more High Quality or Exceptional Value streams.

The goal of this project was to develop a resource that would highlight the relationship between unconventional shale gas development and public resources that the State holds in trust for Pennsylvania’s citizens under Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It is our hope that the map will be useful to citizens, conservation groups and others in planning educational, advocacy, and recreational activities.

The Public Lands Map


A full screen version of The Public Lands Map can be found here.

Background

Public lands held in trust by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for citizens of the state are managed by various state agencies and commissions. The vast majority of State lands, though, are managed by just two bodies – the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Under Act 147 of 2012, the Department of General Services has the authority to lease other lands controlled by the state. In recent years, DCNR and the PGC have made liberal use of their powers to lease State lands for oil and gas development.

DCNR: State Forests, State Parks, and Publicly Owned Streambeds

The DCNR manages approximately 2.2 million acres of State Forest lands and 283,000 acres of State Park lands, as well as many miles of publicly owned streambeds. The Conservation and Natural Resources Act (CNRA) authorizes DCNR to develop oil, gas and other minerals under these lands, so long as the state controls those mineral rights. In some cases, separate persons or entities own the surface of the land and mineral rights. Where DCNR does not control the mineral rights, the owners of the oil and gas have the ability to make reasonable use of the land surface for mineral extraction, subject to restrictions in their property deeds.

Before the start of the Marcellus era, the DCNR leased about 153,268 acres of State Forest lands for mineral development. These leases largely allowed the drilling of “conventional” shallow vertical gas wells. Between 2008 and 2010, the DCNR, under Governor Ed Rendell, leased another 102,679 acres of public lands for natural gas development – but this time the leases were for the drilling of horizontal wells in “unconventional” shale formations using high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Following the lease sale, DCNR published a report on October 26, 2010 that stated any further gas leasing of State Forest Lands would jeopardize the sustainability of the resource. As a result, Governor Rendell signed Executive Order 2010-05, which placed a moratorium on the sale of any additional leases for oil and gas development on lands “owned and managed by DCNR.

On May 23, 2014, Governor Tom Corbett revoked Governor Rendell’s moratorium, and issued a new Executive Order that allowed the issuance of additional leases for gas development beneath State Lands so long as the leases did not entail “additional surface disturbance on State Forest or State Park lands.” Ultimately, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did not enter into any leases under the new Order. However, between January 2011 and January 2015, Governor Corbett’s DCNR did issue leases for gas extraction beneath a number of publicly owned streambeds, which, according to the Post-Gazette, raised $19 million. Governor Corbett’s DCNR also renewed at least one State Forest lease that otherwise would have expired.

On January 29, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued another Executive Order on the matter, which re-established a moratorium on the leasing of State Park and State Forest lands “subject to future advice and recommendations by DCNR.” The Order allows for the continued leasing of publicly owned streambeds. As of the publication of this blog, the DCNR is fighting two lawsuits concerning the leasing of the lands it manages, one by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and one by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013

Drilling in Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Pete Stern 2013.

PGC: State Game Lands

The PGC manages more than 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands that it may lease for gas development under the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code. The PGC can also exchange mineral rights beneath State Game Lands for “suitable lands having an equal or greater value.” To date, the PGC has entered into surface and non-surface leases (technically, cooperative agreements for the exercise of oil and gas production rights) for natural gas development totaling 92,000 acres, of which about 45,000 acres were leased since 2008.

Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Lands

The LWCF Act is a federal law administered by the National Park Service (NPS) that authorizes federal grants to state and local governments for “outdoor recreation.” When a state accepts money for a recreational project, it agrees to protect the recreational value of the area supported by the grant. If the state later decides to take or allow actions that would “convert” parts of the protected area to a non-recreational use (1) the state must seek prior approval from the NPS, and (2) the NPS must perform an environmental assessment of the proposed conversion under the National Environmental Policy Act. The NPS may approve a conversion of LWCF-supported lands only if those lands will be replaced with “other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.”

Between 1978 and 1986, Pennsylvania received three LWCF grants (Project Numbers 42-00580, 42-01235, and 42-01351) to support recreational opportunities on State Forest lands. Most of the money was used to improve roads in various State Forests to improve access for hunters, hikers and anglers. The LWCF layer on the Public Lands map represents those areas that Pennsylvania agreed to protect in exchange for these grants.

In 2009 and 2010, Pennsylvania entered into leases opening up about 11,718 acres of LWCF-protected areas to unconventional gas development. On the map, these areas can be highlighted by selecting “Land and Water Conservation Fund Lands” and “SF Lands – DCNR Leases”; the purplish, overlapping areas represent the leased LWCF lands.

Governor Corbett’s DCNR refused to recognize that shale gas development on public lands constituted a “conversion” under the LWCF Act. The Sierra Club was the first to identify this problem in a 2011 letter to the NPS and the DCNR. That letter requested, among other things, that the NPS formally determine the extent to which DCNR leasing of LWCF-protected State Forest lands has violated the LWCF Act. Nearly four years later, the NPS has yet to determine whether drilling and fracking of unconventional gas wells and construction of the necessary support structures constitutes a “conversion” and loss of recreational opportunities under the LWCF Act.

Old Loggers Path

Old Loggers Path, a favorite among hikers

A Note on the Map Layers

The sources of the GIS layers in the Public Lands map are explained in the “Details” section of the map. For the most part, PennFuture and FracTracker obtained or created the layers from public sources and through open records requests to the DCNR. In all cases, the layers came from the DCNR with a disclaimer as to the accuracy of the data and a warning about relying on the data.

GIS layers that are not currently on the map, but that this project hopes to add, include:

  • State Game Lands that have been leased for drilling;
  • State Park and Game Lands where the oil and gas rights have been “severed” and not controlled by the State;
  • Publicly owned streambeds that the State has leased for oil and gas development;
  • Public lands containing areas of significant ecologic value; and
  • Compressor stations, natural gas and water pipelines, and fresh water and wastewater impoundments.

Persons having access to this data are invited to contact PennFuture or FracTracker.

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.