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Frac sand mine in Wisconsin

Living on the Front Lines with Silica Sand Mines

Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet

Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country.  The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.

Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.

Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.

Bridge Creek Town, Wisconsin

The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.

The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.

However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.

Frac Sand Mine, Eau Claire County, WI

Frac sand mine in Eau Claire County, WI

Hi-Crush Partners LP’s frac sand mine

The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination.  The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.

There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced.  All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.

Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:

The people of Bridge Creek

Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population.  The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.

Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining

Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community

The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government. 

Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?

Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents.  Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.

Resistance sign reading "No Frac Sand Mining" in the August area of Wisconsin

Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.

I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.

These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.


Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.

The Amish community in Bridge Creek:

Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:

 

Photos of the property and workshop:


Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.

The Falcon: Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

Major pipeline projects are scrutinized by state and federal agencies for their potential impacts to threatened, endangered, and protected species. As part of the planning process, operators are required to consult with agencies to identify habitats known to support these species and are often asked to conduct detailed field surveys of specific areas. In this segment of the Falcon Pipeline EIA Project, we investigate how Shell corresponded with different agencies in complying with federal and state protected species guidelines.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • More than half (54%) of construction areas are currently forested or farmland
  • Botanical species Purple Rocket and Climbing Fern located in proximity to workspaces
  • 67 Northern Harrier observations documented during site studies
  • One active Bald Eagle nest and two inactive nests in proximity to workspaces
  • Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees discovered as close as 318 feet from workspaces
  • Clusters of protected freshwater mussels, coldwater fish, and hellbenders in the path of the Falcon

Map of Protected Habitats & Species of Concern

The following map will serve as our guide to exploring the Falcon’s proximity to protected habitats and species of concern. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible at closer zoom levels. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

Shell’s permit applications detail extensive correspondences over a number of years — as early as August 2015 — with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), among other agencies. These interactions tell a story of locating and cataloging threatened flowers, birds of prey, aquatic species, and bats.

Land Cover Assessment

A number of terrestrial habitat types are present along the Falcon pipeline’s route that will be disrupted during its construction. These are easily determined using data maintained by the USGS that tracks land cover and land use trends often used for understanding geospatial biodiversity. Shell used this data in their ecological impacts analysis and we have used it as well for comparison.

Habitat documentations from Shell’s permit applications

More than half (54%) of land in the Falcon’s construction area is currently forested land (deciduous and evergreen). Shell’s permits describe these areas as “contained cool, forested stream valleys and seeps and rich slopes” similar to the image above, which was submitted as part of Shell’s permit applications. An additional 35% is currently farmland (pasture/hay/crops). The remaining land cover is generally made up of water and wetlands, as well as residential and commercial development.

These numbers reflect the fact that the Falcon will travel through predominantly rural areas. Note that this analysis does not account for disruptions that will result from the pipeline’s 111 temporary and 21 permanent access roads. Land Cover for areas along the pipeline can be seen on the FracTracker map by activating the data in the “layers” tab.

Botanical Studies

In their correspondences with state agencies, Shell was notified that a number of important species would likely be found in these habitats. For instance, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) noted the following botanical species on their watch list would be present:

  • Vase-vine Leather-flower (endangered): documented in floodplain and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Harbinger-of-spring (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • White Trout-lily (rare): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Purple Rocket (endangered): documented in forested floodplain of Raccoon Creek
  • Declined Trillium (threatened): documented along wooded tributaries and slopes of Raccoon Creek
  • Snow Trillium (rare): documented in tributary ravines along Raccoon Creek

DCNR requested a survey the Falcon’s route through all of Beaver County and the portion of Allegheny County north of the western fork of Raredon Run. AECOM, Shell’s contractor for this work, surveyed a 300-foot wide buffer along the pipeline route to allow for “minor alignment shifts” as construction plans are refined.

A final survey report was submitted to DCNR in March 2017. In it, AECOM noted having found multiple populations of Harbinger-of-spring (seen below), Purple Rocket, as well as Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum), also the PA Watch List. FracTracker’s map locates the general location of botanical discoveries nearest to the pipeline route.

Documented Harbinger-of-spring

DCNR’s response to the survey stated that route changes and plans to bore under Raccoon Creek using HDDs eliminated risks to Harbinger-of-spring and Purple Rocket. Meanwhile, Climbing Fern was determined to be in close proximity, but not directly in the pipeline’s construction area. Although, documents note that a number of ferns were transplanted “to further the species’ success within the Commonwealth.” As a result of these determinations, DCNR granted clearance for construction in August 2017.

Short-eared Owls & Northern Harriers

Shell was also notified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) that portions of the Falcon’s workspace would be located near six areas with known occurrences of Short-eared Owls (PA endangered species) and Northern Harriers (PA threatened species).

PGC requested a study of these areas to identify breeding and nesting locations, which AECOM executed from April-July 2016 within a 1,000-foot buffer of the pipeline’s workspace (limited to land cover areas consisting of meadows and pasture). One Short-eared Owl observation and 67 Northern Harrier observations were recorded during the study, but that some of these harriers appeared to be nesting just outside the study area. The study area is visible on the FracTracker map, as shown below.

AECOM’s Owl & Harrier study areas

In February 2017, Shell notified PGC that a number of reroutes had occurred that would shift the Falcon pipeline away from a subset of the observed Northern Harrier habitat. Although, there is no mention in the permit applications about identifying potential nest locations in the neighboring areas where AECOM’s biologists observed additional harriers. Nevertheless, PGC’s final determination in August 2017, approved the project, stipulating that, “based on the unusually high number of observations at these locations” work should not be done in these areas during harrier breeding season, April 15 through August 31.

Bald Eagles

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) notified Shell that a known Bald Eagle nest was located in Beaver County. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) noted that two potential “alternate nests” were located where the Falcon crosses the Ohio River. National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines bar habitat disturbances that may interfere with the ability of eagles to breed, nest, roost, and forage.

AECOM surveyed these areas in March 2016 and March 2017. The first stage included an analysis of land cover data to determine other areas along the Falcon’s route that may be desirable eagle habitat. In addition to the sites noted above, AECOM determined that Fort Cherry Golf Course (discussed in gerater detail here) and Beaver Conservation District owned land (discussed in greater detail here) would serve as eagle habitat, although in later field surveys no additional nests were found.

The one active nest in close proximity to the Falcon, called the Montgomery Dam Nest, is located just west of the pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. AECOM’s study determined that the foraging areas for a pair of eagles using the nest span the Ohio River and Raccoon Creek.

An additional nesting site was found near Tomlinson Run, along the Ohio River. During initial field observations it was noted that the nest was not in-use and is in an unmaintained condition. Nevertheless, its use by Bald Eagles as recently as 2015 means it is still considered an “alternate nest” and thus accorded protection from habitat modifications. A second alternate nest was found the west bank of the Ohio River. No previous history of the nest had been recorded by state agencies.

Bald Eagle Study Gaps?

Below are maps from Shell’s permit applications identifying the locations of the three nests. These can also be found on the FracTracker map.[/av_icon_box]

USFWS requested that Shell only implement setback buffers for the one active nest at Montgomery Dam. These include no tree clearing within 330 feet, no visible disturbances with 660 feet, and no excessive noise with 1,000 feet of an active nest. Furthermore, Shell must avoid all activities within 660ft of the nest from January 1st to July 31st that may disturb the eagles, including but not limited to “construction, excavation, use of heavy equipment, use of loud equipment or machinery, vegetation clearing, earth disturbance, planting, and landscaping.”

According to Shell’s permit applications, the reroute that occurred at the Ohio River crossing took the Falcon pipeline away from the two alternate nest sites of concern, and the crossing at the river will be done with HDD boring, thus no impacts will occur. Apparently USFWS agreed with this position. However, as we see in the above maps, the HDD staging area on the WV side of the river (where a great deal of noise will likely occur) is just barely outside the 1,000 foot buffer.

Important Bird Areas

USFWS determined that the Falcon pipeline was also in close proximity to many migratory bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and that “direct or indirect, unintentional take of migratory birds may result even if all reasonable measures to avoid avian mortality are utilized.” In particular, the USFWS brought attention to the Raccoon Creek Valley and State Park Important Bird Area (IBA), which is located just south and west of the Falcon pipeline’s two major branches, as seen below.

USFWS recommended a number of strategies, such as co-locating the Falcon pipeline along rights-of-way used by existing pipelines. We see this indeed became the case, as 11 of the Falcon’s 23 pipeline miles in Beaver County are found adjacent to or parallel to existing ROWs.

Additional restrictions were placed on the project in Ohio, where ODNR determined that the Falcon is within range of the Upland Sandpiper, a state endangered bird that nests in grasslands and pastures. Shell was instructed to avoid construction in these habitat types from April 15-July 31 if such areas were to be disturbed. As we can see on the FracTracker map’s analysis of land cover data, there are significant areas of grassland and pasture in Ohio along the pipeline route.

No Peregrine Falcon?

One absence we noted in AECOM’s birds of prey studies was any mention of Peregrine Falcons, listed as endangered and protected under the PA Game and Wildlife Code. Peregrine Falcons nest in cliffs and bridges along rivers in Allegheny and Beaver counties and are particularly prized by the PA DEP, as evidenced by a prominently displayed booth at their Harrisburg headquarters.

PA DEP Falcon Exhibit

One known nest is located under the East Rochester-Monaca Bridge just north of the Falcon pipeline’s terminus at Shell’s ethane cracker facility. While it is unlikely that activities such as tree clearing would affect falcon habitat, other aspects of the pipeline’s construction, such accidental drilling mud spills at HDD sites or ethane releases along Raccoon Creek, may indeed impact Falcon populations.

Federally Protected Bats

The USFWS notified Shell that the Falcon is located within the range of federally protected Indiana Bats and Northern Long-eared Bats in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and requested Shell conduct a bat “mist net” survey to identify breeding areas. Mist netting involves setting up nylon mesh nets at predetermined locations to capture and document bat populations.

AECOM’s bat survey was conducted from April-July 2016. While bats are known to live in caves and abandoned mines in winter, the study focused on summer habitats — mainly forests that support roost trees — given that tree clearing from building the pipeline would be the most likely impact. These forested areas constituted about 27 of the Falcon pipeline’s 97 miles in the two states. Mist net locations (MNLs) were established at 46 sites along the route, roughly 1/2 mile apart, as shown on the FracTracker map. A later reroute of the pipeline led to setting up 4 additional MNLs in June 2017.

A total of 274 bats from 6 different species were captured in the study, included 190 Big Brown Bats, 2 Silver-haired Bats, 62 Eastern Red Bats, 2 Hoary Bats, and 1 Little Brown Bat. 17 Northern Long-eared Bats were found at 13 of the MNL sites, but no Indiana Bats were captured. Radio transmitters were then attached to the Northern Long-eared Bats in order to follow them to roost trees. A total of 9 roost trees were located, with the nearest roost tree located 318 feet from the pipeline’s workspace.

A captured Northern Long-eared Bat

In January 2018, USFWS stated that, because the Falcon’s construction area is not within 150 feet of a known roost tree during breeding season or within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site, that “incidental take that might result from tree removal is not prohibited.” However, USFWS also stated that “Due to the presence of several Northern Long-eared Bat roost trees within the vicinity of the project footprint (although outside of the 150-foot buffer), we recommend the following voluntary conservation measure: No tree removal between June 1 and July 31.”

Furthermore, the PGC noted in early correspondences that Silver-haired Bats may be in the region (a PA species of special concern). This was confirmed in AECOM’s mist net study. PGC did not require a further study for the species, but did request a more restrictive conservation of no tree clearing between April 1 and October 31.

Bat Study Gaps?

There are a number of possible gaps in AECOM’s study that need attention. First, the study notes the nearest roost tree is 318 feet from the Falcon’s workspace, but this does not fully represent the likely impact to bat populations. As is seen in the map below, taken from Shell’s permits, this tree is just one in a cluster of five trees all within 750 feet of the pipeline’s workspace.

A dense cluster of bat roosting trees

Furthermore, tree clearing in this area will be extensive considering its proximity to the Falcon’s juncture in Beaver County that also must accommodate a metering pad and access roads. This area is shown in the permit application map below and can be explored on the FracTracker map as well.

A second questionable aspect of the study is that, while the USFWS letter states the Falcon is not “within a 1/4 mile of a known year-round hibernation site,” this was not proven in the study as it did not identify nearby winter habitats. These omissions are noteworthy given the already significant stressors to bat populations in the region, as well as increasing pressure from oil and gas companies to relax standards for protecting endangered bat species.

A Note on Noise Control

As part of their ability to build the Falcon pipeline, USFWS mandated that Shell employ an “independent noise consultant” to measure ambient pre-construction noise levels at each HDD site and at designated Noise Sensitive Areas (NSA), which are generally determined by the presence of protected bird and bat species. Less is known about the details of this part of AECOM’s study plan for Shell. However, we have located noise monitoring sites on the FracTracker map for reference.

Freshwater Mussels

The USFWS and PGC identified very early in the Shell’s construction plans that the project would likely impact four endangered mussel species: the Northern Riffelshell, the Clubshell, the Rayed Bean, and the Snuffbox. AECOM conducted a survey in May 2016, at the request of Pennsylvania and Ohio agencies at 16 perennial streams along the route in those two states. These are shown on the FracTracker map. In PA, mussels were found to be present at both of the Falcon’s intersections with Raccoon Creek, as seen in a photo from Shell’s permit application below.

Documented freshwater mussels in Raccoon Creek

The results of the Ohio study are unknown at this time. However, we found it interesting that ODNR’s letter to Shell stated that unavoidable impacts could be resolved by allowing specialists to collect and relocate mussels to suitable and similar upstream habitats. Meanwhile, it appears that the USFWS and PFBC have also green lighted construction around the two known Raccoon Creek mussel habitats, as Shell’s applications argue these waters would not be impacted due to the fact that they would be crossing using HDD boring.

Coldwater Fish

The PA Fish & Boat Commission notified Shell that the Falcon may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace. This threatened species is especially vulnerable to physical and chemical (turbidity, temperature) changes to their environment. PAFB explicitly notes in their correspondences that “we are concerned about potential impacts to the fish, eggs and the hatching fry from any in-stream work.” Of note is that these sites of concern are located in HQ/CWF streams of the Service Creek watershed (discussed in greater detail here), as shown on the map below.

Headwater streams in the Service Creek watershed

Early correspondences with PFBC show the agency requesting that directional boring be used for these stream crossings or, if work necessitated direct impacts (such as open-cut crossings), that these activity be avoided during the spawning season. Shell responded to the request in stating that, with the exception of the Service Creek itself which will be crossed by HDD, the terrain surrounding its headwater streams was not suitable for boring, and would thus require open-cuts.

PFBC’s final determination on these matters is that they generally agreed, with the exception of the HDD site and one headwater stream (S-PA-151104-MRK-001), all other crossings must adhere to seasonal restrictions with no in-stream activity being conducted between May 1-July 31.

In Ohio, we see similar circumstances related to the River Darter, the Paddlefish, and the Channel Darter, all threatened species in the state. The ODNR recommended no in-stream work in the Ohio River from March 15-June 30 and no in-stream work in any of the state’s perennial streams from April 15-June 30.

Eastern Hellbenders

The Falcon is also within range of Eastern Hellbender habitat in Ohio, a state endangered species and a federal species of concern. In particular, ODNR noted that Yellow Creek, in Jefferson County, is known to host the species. Because of this, ODNR requested that if any in-stream work was to occur in Yellow Creek, a habitat suitability survey must be conducted to determine if Hellbenders were present. Yellow Creek’s tributaries are indeed crossed by the Falcon. Whether or not a study was conducted as a result of this is unknown due to our not having reviewed Shell’s Ohio permit applications. The below image, captured from our page on water crossings, shows these locations.

Falcon crossing Yellow Creek tributaries

Allowable Work Dates

To summarize, there are numerous implications for how Shell’s construction of the Falcon pipeline must accommodate endangered, threatened, and rare species in different states. In particular, Shell must avoid land and aquatic disturbances during different breeding and spawning seasons. Below is a breakdown of these black-out periods. Note that these only apply to locations where sensitive species were found in AECOM’s studies.

Land Disturbances

  • Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls (PGC): No clearing between April 15 and August 31
  • Bald Eagles (USFWS): No work between January 1 and July 31
  • Upland Sandpiper (ODNR): No clearing between April 15 and July 31
  • Bats (USFWS): No clearing between April 1 and October 31

Aquatic Disturbances

  • Southern Redbelly Dace (PFBC): No in-stream work between May 1 and July 31
  • River Darter, Paddlefish, Channel Darter (ODNR): No Ohio River work between March 15 and June 30; no perennial stream work between April 15 and June 30

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Related Articles

Sandhill Crane

Giving Voice to the Sandhill Cranes: Place-based Arguments against Keystone XL

By Wrexie Bardaglio, guest commentator

When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…” ~ Aldo Leopold, on the Sandhill Crane, in “Marshland Elegy”

Dilbit – or diluted bitumen – is refined from the naturally-occurring tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. In March 2017, I applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for standing as an intervenor in the Commission’s consideration of TransCanada’s request for a permit to construct a pipeline transporting dilbit – a project referred to as the Keystone XL pipeline. Below are my reflections on the battle against the permitting process, and how FracTracker’s maps ensured the Sandhill Crane’s voice made it into public record.

A Pipeline’s History

The Keystone 1 pipeline carries the dilbit from Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, and ultimately to Port Arthur, Texas and export refineries along the Gulf Coast. The state of Montana had already approved the Keystone XL project, as had the state of South Dakota. The decision of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission was appealed, however, and has now worked its way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Resistance to TransCanada’s oil and gas infrastructure projects is not new. Beginning in 2010, some Nebraska farmers and ranchers joined forces with tribal nations in the Dakotas, who were also fighting TransCanada’s lack of proper tribal consultation regarding access through traditional treaty territory. The indigenous nations held certain retained rights as agreed in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States government and the nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. The tribes were also protesting TransCanada’s flaunting of the National Historic Preservation Act’s protections of Native American sacred sites and burial grounds. Further, although TransCanada was largely successful in securing the easements needed in Nebraska to construct the pipeline, there were local holdouts refusing to negotiate with the company. TransCanada’s subsequent attempts to exercise eminent domain resulted in a number of lawsuits.

In January of 2015, then-President Barack Obama denied the international permit TransCanada needed. While that denial was celebrated by many, everyone also understood that a new president could well restore the international permit. Indeed, as one of his first actions in January 2017, the new Republican president signed an executive order granting the permit, and the struggle in Nebraska was reignited.

“What Waters Run Through My Veins…”

While I am a long-time resident of New York, I grew up in the Platte River Valley of South Central Nebraska, in a town where my family had and continues to have roots – even before Nebraska became a state. There was never a question in my mind that in this particular permitting process I would request status as an intervenor; for me, the matter of the Keystone XL Pipeline went far beyond the legal and political and energy policy questions that were raised and were about to be considered. It was about who I am, how I was raised, what I was taught, what waters run through my veins as surely as blood, and who my own spirit animals are, the Sandhill Cranes.

wrexie_3yrs

Bardaglio (age 3) and her father, along the banks of the Platte River

When we were growing up, our father told us over and over and over about why Nebraska was so green. The Ogallala Aquifer, he said, was deep and vast, and while eight states partially sat atop this ancient natural cistern, nearly all of Nebraska floated on this body. Nebraska was green, its fields stretching to the horizon, because, as our father explained, the snow runoff from the Rockies that flowed into our state and was used eleven times over was cleansed in water-bearing sand and gravel on its way to the Missouri on our eastern boundary, thence to the Mississippi, and finally to the Gulf.

I grew up understanding that the Ogallala Aquifer was a unique treasure, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, the lifeblood for Nebraska’s agriculture and U.S. agriculture generally, and worthy of protection. I thought about the peril to the aquifer because of TransCanada’s plans, should there be a spill, and the additional threats an accident would potentially pose to Nebraska’s rivers, waterways and private wells.

2000px-ogallala_saturated_thickness_1997-sattk97-v2-svg

The Ogallala Aquifer

Knowing that climate change is real, terrifying, and accelerating, I recognized that a warming world would increasingly depend on this aquifer in the nation’s midsection for life itself.

Migration of the Sandhill Cranes

As I thought about how I would fight the KXL, another narrative took shape rising out of my concern for the aquifer. Growing up in the South Central Platte River Valley, I – and I daresay most everyone who lives there – have been captivated by the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes, plying the skies known as the Central Flyway. As sure as early spring comes, so do the birds. It may still be bitterly cold, but these birds know that it is time to fly. And so they do – the forward scouts appearing in winter grey skies, soon followed by some 500,000 – 600,000 thousand of them, darkening the skies, their cries deafening and their gorgeous archaeopteryx silhouettes coming in wave after wave like flying Roman Legions.

branch-bird-sky-sunrise-sunset-morning-dawn-flock-dusk-birds-cranes-water-bird-bird-migration-migratory-birds-atmospheric-phenomenon-animal-migration-crane-like-bird-529634

To this day, no matter where I am, the first thing in my sinews and bones when winter begins to give way is the certainty that the birds are coming, I feel them; they are back. They are roosting on the sandbars in the braided river that is the Platte and gleaning in the stubbled fields abutting it… they are home.

According to The Nature Conservancy:

Scientists estimate that at least one-third of the entire North American population of Sandhill Cranes breed in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska…

Scientists estimate that approximately 80 percent of all Sandhill Cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River during spring migration. From March to April, more than 500,000 birds spend time in the area preparing for the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, the birds may fly as much as 400 miles in one day.

Sandhill Cranes rely on open freshwater wetlands for most of their lifecycle. Degradation of these kinds of wetland habitats is among the most pressing threats to the survival of Sandhill Cranes. (Emphasis added)

Giving Sandhill Cranes a Voice

But how could I make the point about the threat TransCanada posed to the migratory habitat of the Sandhill Cranes (and endangered Whooping Cranes, pelicans, and hummingbirds among the other thermal riders who also migrate with them)? Books, scientific papers, lectures – all the words in the world – cannot describe this ancient rite, this mysterious primal navigation of the unique pathway focusing on this slim stretch of river, when viewed from a global perspective a fragile skein in a fragile web in a biosphere in peril.

In my head I called it a river of birds in the grassland of sky. And I am so grateful to my friend, Karen Edelstein at FracTracker Alliance, for her willingness to help map and illustrate the magnificence of the migration flyway in the context of the three proposed options for the KXL pipeline.

flyway_map

Karen prepared two maps for me, but my favorite is the one above.

It shows an ancient, near-primordial, near-mystical event. Guided by rudders and instinct we can barely comprehend, in concert with earth’s intrinsic and exquisitely-designed balance, and as certain as a sunrise, a sunset or a moon rise, these oldest of crane species find their ways through the heavens. They hew to certainties that eclipse the greed of multinational corporations like TransCanada, who barely even pay lip service to the integrity of anything over which they can’t exert dominion. To say they don’t respect the inherent rights of species other than our own, or to ecological communities that don’t directly include us, is an understatement, and a damning comment on their values.

I was prepared for pushback on these maps from TransCanada. And in truth, the company was successful in an in limine motion to have certain exhibits and parts of my testimony stricken from the official record of the proceedings.

But not the maps.

In fact, too many other intervenors to count, as well as several of the lawyers involved in the proceedings commented to me on the beauty and accuracy of the maps. And not only are they now a part of the permanent record of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, should there be an appeal (which all of us expect), on both sides of the issue, there is a very good possibility they will be incorporated into the formal testimonies by the lawyers as the matter moves through the appeals process.

Taking Action, Speaking Out

Ordinary citizens must figure out how to confront the near-impenetrable stranglehold of multi-national corporations whose wealth is predicated on the continuance of fossil fuels as the primary sources of energy. We have had to become more educated, more activist, and more determined to fight the destruction that is now assured if we fail to slow down the impacts of climate change and shift the aggregate will of nations towards renewable energy.

Many activists do not realize that they can formally intervene at the state level in pipeline and infrastructure permitting processes. In doing so, the voice of the educated citizen is amplified and becomes a threat to these corporations whose business models didn’t account for systematic and informed resistance in public agencies’ heretofore pro forma proceedings. The publicly-available documents and filings from corporations can be important tools for “speaking truth to power” when paired with the creative tools born of necessity by the environmental movement.

Technology is value-neutral, but as I learned – as did many others in the Keystone XL Pipeline fight – in skilled hands it becomes a weapon in the struggle for the greater good.

I will be forever grateful for FracTracker, and will be interested to see how others use this tool in the fights that are sure to come.

EXCELSIOR!

For more background on the natural history of Sandhill Cranes, please view this video produced by The Crane Trust.


Wrexie Bardaglio is a Nebraska native living in Covert, New York. She worked for ten years for a member of Congress as a legislative assistant with a focus on Indian affairs and for a DC law firm as legislative specialist in Indian affairs. She left politics to open a bookstore in suburban Baltimore. She has been active in the Keystone XL fights in Nebraska and South Dakota and in fracking and gas infrastructure fights in New York.

This article’s feature image of a Sandhill Crane is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

FracTracker Alliance makes hundreds of maps, analyses, and photos available for free to frontline communities, grassroots groups, NGO’s, and many other organizations concerned about the industry to use in their oil and gas campaigns. To address an issue, you need to be able to see it.

However, we rely on funders and donations – and couldn’t do all of this without your help!

Indian Creek - Part of Bears Ears National Monument

Nationally treasured federal lands face threats by oil, gas, and other extractive uses

Should public, federal lands be opened up even further for extracting minerals, oil, and gas for private ventures? FracTracker’s Karen Edelstein discusses the past, present, and potential future of many of America’s cherished natural resources and wonders.

The United States is blessed with some of the most diverse natural landscapes in the world. Through foresight of great leaders over the decades, starting in 1906 — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Benjamin Harrison, and Jimmy Carter – to name just a few — well over a half billion acres of wilderness have been set aside as national parks, refuges, monuments, and roadless areas. Some of the most famous of these protected areas include the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Grand Tetons National Parks. In all, the federal government owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land that the United States comprises. These federal lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): 248.3 million acres, the US Forest Service: 192.9 million acres, US Fish and Wildlife Service: 89.1 million acres, and National Park Service: 78.9 million acres. In addition, the US Department of Defense administers 11.4 million acres.

Why are federal lands at risk?

While most people assume that federal wild lands are forever protected from development and commercial exploitation, quite the opposite is true. For most of the past century, federal lands have hunted, fished, logged and grazed by private individuals and enterprises. In addition, and in the cross-hairs of discussion here, is the practice of leasing lands to industrial interests for the purpose of extracting minerals, oil, and gas from these public lands.

Provisions for land conservation and restrictions on oil and gas extraction, in particular, became more stringent since the inception of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. However, environmentalists have watched in horror as the current administration in Washington has gutted the EPA, and installed climate change-deniers and corporate executives in high levels of office throughout a range of federal agencies. Notable is the appointment of Ryan Zinke as US Secretary of the Interior. Zinke, a former businessman, has a long record of opposing environmental viewpoints around extraction of oil, coal, and gas and cutting regulations. The League of Conservation Voters gives his voting record a lifetime score of 4 percent on environmental issues. As recently as this week, Joel Clement–one of Zinke’s senior advisors–resigned his post, citing, Zinke’s poor leadership, wasting of tax-payer dollars, and denial of climate change science.

Early in his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke initiated a review of 27 national monuments, a move that environmentalists feared could lead to the unraveling of protections on millions of acres of federal land, and also relaxed regulations on oil and gas exploration in those areas. Public comment on the plans to review these national monuments was intense; when the public comment period closed on July 10, 2017, the Interior Department had received over 2.4 million comments, the vast majority of which supported keeping the existing boundaries and restrictions as they are.

Federal lands under threat by Trump Administration


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The above map shows which sites are under consideration for oil, gas, or coal extraction, or face boundary reduction of up to 88%. Click here to view this map full-screen with a legend, zoom in and click on areas of interest, etc.

Who should be allowed to use these resources?

Ranchers, loggers, and recreational hunters and anglers felt that the 1906 Antiquities Act had been over-interpreted, and therefore advocated for Zinke’s proposal. (The Act was the first U.S. law to provide protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource.)

However, environmental advocates such as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and others were adamantly opposed to opening up federal lands resources for extraction, citing the need for environmental protection, public access, and, importantly, concerns that the lands would be more easily transferred to state, local, or private interests. Environmentalists also argue that the revenue generated by tourism at these pristine sites would far exceed that generated by extractive resource activities. Attorneys and staff from NPCA and NRDC argued legislation in effect since the 1970s requires role for Congress in changing the boundaries of existing monuments. The President or his cabinet do not have that sole authority.

The Wilderness Society estimates that already, 90% of the land in the US West, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, is open for oil and gas leasing, while only 10% is set aside for other uses (Figure 2). According to information from Sourcewatch, in 2013, these lands included 12 National Monuments, Parks, Recreation Areas, and Preserves that had active drilling, and another 31 that might see possible drilling in the future.

Source: The Wilderness Society

Figure 2. Percent of land already available for oil and gas leasing in the West. Source: The Wilderness Society

What Zinke has Proposed

True to expectation, in August of 2017, Zinke issued a recommendation to shrink the boundaries of several national monuments to allow coal mining and other “traditional uses” — which appear to include large-scale timbering, as well as potentially oil and gas drilling. Sites include Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah (encompassing more than 3.2 million acres in lands considered sacred to Dine/Navajo people), Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and Gold Butte in Nevada. According to Zinke’s report, Grand Staircase-Escalante contains “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits”. Zinke lifted Obama-era restrictions on coal leasing on federal lands this past March, 2017. However, just last week, a federal judge ruled that the current Administration’s efforts to suspend methane emission restrictions from pipelines crossing public lands were illegal. These are merely a few of the Obama-era environmental protections that Zinke is attempting to gut.

Zinke has proposed decreasing the size of Bears Ears National Monument from the current 1.35 million acres to a mere 160,000, a reduction of 88%. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, made up of thirty Native American tribes, condemned the recommendation as a “slap in the face to the members of our Tribes and an affront to Indian people all across the country.” The Navajo Nation intends to sue the President’s administration if this reduction at Bears Ears is enacted.

Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama, contains tens of thousands of cultural artifacts, and is facing not only a threat of boundary shrinkage, but also a relaxing use restrictions within the Monument area. The current President has referred to Obama’s designation of the monument as “an egregious abuse of power.” Grand Staircase-Escalante was designated by President Bill Clinton, and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was designated by Clinton and expanded by President Obama.

The recommendation details were not made public in August, however, and only came to light in September through a leaked memo, published in The Washington Post. In the memo, Secretary Zinke noted that the existing boundaries were “arbitrary or likely politically motivated or boundaries could not be supported by science or reasons of resource management.” The memo goes on to say that “[i]t appears that certain monuments were designated to prevent economic activity such as grazing, mining and timber production rather than to protect specific objects.” In addition, Zinke is advocating for the modification for commercial fishing uses of two marine national monuments: the Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll.

Lacking Specificity

According to the Washingon Post, Zinke:

… plans to leave six designations in place: Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients; Idaho’s Craters of the Moon; Washington’s Hanford Reach; Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant; Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks; and California’s Sand to Snow.

Perplexingly, the report is silent on 11 of the 27 monuments named in the initial proposal. One of which is the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — over 725,000 square miles of ocean — in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The report also requests tribal co-management of “cultural resources”  at Bears Ears, Rio Grande del Norte, and Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks. While one could imagine that greater involvement of indigenous people in the federal government’s management of the sacred landscapes to be a potentially positive improvement, the report is silent on the details. More information on tribal co-management and other options can be gleaned from a series of position papers written by the Property and Environment Research Center.

Of other note: Zinke is also suggesting the establishment of three new national monuments, including the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area in Montana, a sacred site of the Blackfeet Nation. Badger-Two Medicine was the site of a more than 30-year battle to retire 32,000 acres of oil and gas leases. The tribe prevailed, and the leases were canceled in November, 2016.

With potential lawsuits pending about boundary changes, galvanized push-back from environmental and tribal interests on resource management definitions for the targeted monuments, and general unpredictability on policy details and staffing in Washington, the trajectory of how this story will play out remains uncertain. FracTracker will continue to monitor for updates, and provide additional links in this story as they unfold.

Check out National Geographic’s bird’s eye view of these protected areas for a stunning montage, descriptions, and more maps of the monuments under consideration.


Federal Lands Map Data Sources

National Monuments under consideration for change by Secretary Zinke:
Accessed from ArcGIS Online by FracTracker Alliance, 28 August 2017. Data apparently from federal sources, such as BLM, NPS, etc. Dataset developed by Kira Minehart, GIS intern with Natural Resources Defense Council.0=not currently targeted for policy or boundary change1= targeted for expanded resource use, such as logging, fishing, etc. 2=targeted for shrinkage of borders, and expanded resource use.

National Park Service lands with current or potential oil and gas drilling:
Downloaded by FracTracker Alliance on 9 November 2016, from National Park Service.  Drilling information from here. List of sites threatened by oil and gas drilling from here (23 January 2013).

Badger-Two Medicine potential Monument:
Shapefile downloaded from USGS by FracTracker Alliance on 28 August 2017. This map layer consists of federally owned or administered lands of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For the most part, only areas of 320 acres or more are included; some smaller areas deemed to be important or significant are also included. There may be private inholdings within the boundaries of Federal lands in this map layer. Some established Federal lands which are larger than 320 acres are not included in this map layer, because their boundaries were not available from the owning or administering agency. Complete metadata available here.


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Wayne National Forest map and drilling

Wayne National Forest Could Be Deforested – Again

Guest article by Becca Pollard

Eighty years ago, Southeastern Ohio was a wasteland of barren, eroding hills. During the 18th and 19th centuries this once heavily forested area in the Appalachian foothills had been clear cut and mined beyond recognition. When the Great Depression struck, lowering crop prices made farming unprofitable in the area, and 40% of the population moved away.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that employed men aged 18-25 to do manual labor related to conservation and development of natural resources such as planting trees, constructing trails, roads, and lodges, fighting wildfires, and controlling erosion. The following year, Ohio’s legislature agreed to allow the federal government to purchase land in the state for the purpose of establishing a national forest. The Forest Service was tasked with restoring the land for what is now called Wayne National Forest (WNF). A tree nursery was established near Chillicothe, and with the help of the CCC and volunteers, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, garden clubs, and school children, reforestation began.

Photos Credit: US Forest Service

An Area on the Mend

Today, WNF comprises three units that span 12 Ohio counties in the Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau. The hills are covered in biologically diverse mixed mesophytic forest, which includes approximately 120 species of trees and provides habitat for at least 45 species of mammals, 158 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 87 species of fish. The US Forest Service estimates that 240,000 people visit this ecological wonder annually, according to Forest Recreation Program Manager, Chad Wilberger, in Nelsonville, Ohio. The restoration of barren public land to its current state is a great achievement. If it continues to be protected, Wayne could one day resemble the old growth forest that thrived here before the arrival of European settlers.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), however, has recently decided to lease up to 40,000 acres of Wayne to gas and oil companies for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The first auction took place last December resulting in the lease of 700 acres. A second auction this March leased another 1,200 acres. Nearly all of this land lies within the 60,000 acre Marietta Unit of the forest. This brings Oil & Gas Expressions of Interest (EOI) acreage to roughly 7.5% of all WNF owned parcels in this unit.

Wayne National Forest and Adjacent Existing Oil and Gas Infrastructure
Below is a map of the Wayne National Forest, along with parcels owned by WNF (shown in gray) and those that might be subject to unconventional oil and gas development (gray parcels outlined with dashes). We also include existing unconventional oil and gas infrastructure near the park. Explore the map below, or click here to view the map fullscreen.


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Not new, not old

Gas and oil development is not new to the Wayne. Since the passage of The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the US Forest Service’s land management plan for WNF has included conventional drilling, and derricks are a common sight on both public and private land in southeastern Ohio.

Fracking (unconventional drilling), however, has a far greater impact, requiring clear cutting of large areas of land for the construction of concrete well pads, and the use of millions of gallons of water that will become contaminated during the process and then transported by truck to injection wells. Accidents can be catastrophic for workers and nearby residents, and fracking and waste water disposal have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.

In 2012, BLM updated its WNF Land and Resource Management Plan to allow fracking in the forest without conducting new impact studies.

What is at risk?

The Marietta Unit of the WNF is located in Monroe, Perry, and Washington counties in Southeastern Ohio along the Ohio River. Within its boundary are a wealth of trails used for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, campgrounds, and waterways ideal for kayaking and fishing. Both the highest and lowest points in the Wayne lie in this unit, as does the Irish Run Natural Bridge. The area is also known for its exceptional wildflowers, as shown in the photos below.

One popular recreation area, Lamping Homestead, lies directly within an oil and gas Expression Of Interest (EOI) parcel #3040602400 (See Map Above), one of the areas under consideration for lease. In the 1800s, it was the site of the Lamping family’s farm, but today all that remains of the settlers is a small cemetery with an iron gate atop a hill overlooking a small lake. Six campsites are situated around the western side of the lake, and two intersecting hiking loops rise into the wooded hills to the east. On the western side of the parking lot is a covered picnic area. A creek flows out of the lake and into Clear Fork, a tributary of the Little Muskingum River, across the road from the parking lot.

Both the lake and stream are popular boating and fishing areas. Lamping is an excellent spot for wildlife viewing. The lake, the creeks that flow in and out of it, and the surrounding wooded hills support an impressive variety of plant and animal species. During the day, visitors might spot ducks, geese, great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, summer tanagers, red spotted newts, box turtles, northern water snakes, garter snakes, deer, rabbits, and muskrats. At night, they could be greeted by a cacophony of voices from frogs, owls, and coyotes.

Species of trees, plants, and fungus are also numerous. In winter, stands of white pine pop out against the bare branches of oak, hickory, maple, buckeye, and other deciduous trees. In spring, eye-catching splotches of blooming dogwood and redbud contrast against the many shades of green. But hikers who pull their gaze away from the brightly colored canopy and look down are rewarded with an abundance of wildflowers and the butterflies they attract, as well as many varieties of mushrooms and fungus, including such edible varieties as morels, wood ear, and dryad’s saddle.

Estimating Disturbances

It is unclear how much surface disturbance would occur on public land if this parcel were to be fracked, but even if the well pad and pipelines were constructed on private land adjacent to the forest, in order to drill under the forest, the public land and its inhabitants and visitors would certainly be impacted.

There is no question that noise and air pollution from traffic and construction would be disruptive both to wildlife and to human visitors. Explore various photos of the oil and gas industry in the gallery below:

The extraction process requires 2 million to 6 million gallons of fresh water each time a well is fracked. The rate at which hydraulic fracturing’s water demand is increasing on a per-well basis here in Ohio reached an exponential state around Q4-2013 and Q1-2014 and continues to rise at a rate of 3.1 million gallons per well per year (Figure 1).

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Total and Per Well Freshwater Demand between Q3-2010 and Q3-2016.

In Ohio, oil and gas companies are allowed to pull this water directly from streams and rivers at no cost. All this is possible, despite the fact that after its use it is so contaminated that it must be disposed of via injection wells and is permanently removed from the water cycle. The industry is already pulling water from streams in the Marietta Unit of the WNF for use in fracking on private land. Fracking public land simply means water withdrawals will occur on a much larger scale.

Ohio and West Virginia Shale Water Demand and Injection Waste Disposal
This map shows Utica wells weighted by water demand and disposal (and/or production). It also depicts water, sand, and chemical usage as well as injection waste and oil production. Explore the map below, or click here to view map fullscreen.


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Inevitable methane leaks, in addition to contributing to climate change, affect humans and wildlife in their immediate vicinity, causing headaches and nausea and even killing trees and plants.

In addition to the anticipated harm that fracking inflicts upon a natural area, there is also a risk of accidents with potentially devastating consequences. Residents of Monroe County have already seen a few in recent years from fracking on private land. In 2014, a well pad fire in the village of Clarington resulted in a chemical spill that contaminated nearby Opossum Creek, killing 70,000 fish. The same year a large gas leak 15 miles south in the village of Sardis resulted in the evacuation of all homes within half mile radius.

Recent studies have shown that extraction wells, in addition to injection wells, can cause earthquakes. Unsurprisingly, Monroe County has seen a spike in seismic activity with the increase in fracking activity in the area. The most recent incident was a 3.0 magnitude earthquake in the forest less than five miles from Lamping Homestead in April of this year.

Supporters of Wayne National Forest

Many people have repeatedly spoken out against BLM’s plan, submitting a petition with more than 100,000 signatures, and protesting outside Wayne National Forest Headquarters and Athens Ranger Station in Nelsonville. They have even organized voters to call and write letters to Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson and legislators, including Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and Governor John Kasich. BLM has not budged on its decision, unfortunately, insisting that leasing this land for fracking, and associated infrastructure buildout, will have “no significant impact.”

This May, the Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Sierra Club, and Heartwood, a regional organization focused on protecting forests, filed a lawsuit against BLM, aiming to void BLM leases and halt all fracking operations within the national forest.

Concerned citizens continue to organize raise awareness as they await the outcome of the suit.

Becca Pollard is Freelance Journalist and Co-founder of Keep Wayne Wild


Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the data used to create this article’s maps:

Ethanol and fracking

North American Ethanol’s Land, Water, Nutrient, and Waste Impact

Corn Ethanol and Fracking – Similarities Abound

Even though it is a biofuel and not a fossil fuel, in this post we discuss the ways in which the corn ethanol production industry is similar to the fracking industry. For those who may not be familiar, biofuel refers to a category of fuels derived directly from living matter. These may include:

  1. Direct combustion of woody biomass and crop residues, which we recently mapped and outlined,
  2. Ethanol1 produced directly from the fermentation of sugarcanes or indirectly by way of the intermediate step of producing sugars from corn or switchgrass cellulose,
  3. Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans, oil palm, jatropha, and canola or cooking oil waste,2 and
  4. Anaerobic methane digestion of natural gas from manures or human waste.

Speaking about biofuels in 2006, J. Hill et al. said:

To be a viable substitute for a fossil fuel, an alternative fuel should not only have superior environmental benefits over the fossil fuel it displaces, be economically competitive with it, and be producible in sufficient quantities to make a meaningful impact on energy demands, but it should also provide a net energy gain over the energy sources used to produce it.

Out of all available biofuels it is ethanol that accounts for a lion’s share of North American biofuel production (See US Renewables Map Below). This trend is largely because most Americans put the E-10 blends in their tanks (10% ethanol).3 Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for ethanol production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would essentially double the current capacity (17.9 billion gallons) and require the equivalent of an additional 260 refineries to come online by then (Table 1, bottom).

US Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste along with Ethanol Refineries and Wind Farms


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

But more to the point… the language, tax regimes, and potential costs of both ethanol production and fracking are remarkably similar. (As evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout this piece.) Interestingly, some of the similarities are due to the fact that “Big Ag” and “Big Oil” are coupled, growing more so every year:

The shale revolution has resulted in declining natural gas and oil prices, which benefit farms with the greatest diesel, gasoline, and natural gas shares of total expenses, such as rice, cotton, and wheat farms. However, domestic fertilizer prices have not substantially fallen despite the large decrease in the U.S. natural gas price (natural gas accounts for about 75-85 percent of fertilizer production costs). This is due to the relatively high cost of shipping natural gas, which has resulted in regionalized natural gas markets, as compared with the more globalized fertilizer market. (USDA, 2016)

Ethanol’s Recent History

For background, below is a timeline of important events and publications related to ethanol regulation in the U.S. in the last four decades: 

Benefits of Biofuels

[Bill] Clinton justified the ethanol mandate by declaring that it would provide “thousands of new jobs for the future” and that “this policy is good for our environment, our public health, and our nation’s farmers—and that’s good for America.” EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed that “it is important to our efforts to diversify energy resources and promote energy independence.” – James Bovard citing Peter Stone’s “The Big Harvest,” National Journal, July 30, 1994.

Of the 270 ethanol refineries we had sufficient data for, we estimate these facilities employ 235,624 people or 873 per facility and payout roughly $6.18-6.80 billion in wages each year, at an average of $22.9-25.2 million per refinery. These employees spend roughly 423,000 hours at the plant or at associated operations earning between $14.63 and $16.10 per hour including benefits. Those figures amount to 74-83% of the average US income. In all fairness, these wages are 13-26% times higher than the farming, fishing, and forestry sectors in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, which alone account for 33% of US ethanol refining.

Additional benefits of ethanol refineries include the nearly 179 million tons of CO2 left in the field as stover each year, which amounts to 654,532 tons per refinery. Put another way – these amounts are equivalent to the annual emissions of 10.7 million and 39,194 Americans, respectively.

Finally, what would a discussion of ethanol refineries be without an estimate of how much gasoline is produced? It turns out that the 280 refineries (for which we have accurate estimates of capacity) produce an average of 71.93 million gallons per year and 20.1 billion gallons in total. That figure represents 14.3% of US gasoline demand.

Costs of Biofuels

Direct Costs

Biofuel expansions such as those listed in the timeline above and those eluded to by the likes of the IPCC have several issues associated with them. One of which is what Pimentel et al. considered an insufficient – and to those of us in the fracking NGO community, familiar sounding – “breadth of relevant expertise and perspectives… to pronounce fairly and roundely on this many-sided issue.”

The above acts and reports in the timeline prompted many American farmers to double down on corn at the expense of soybeans, which caused Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC); the global soy market skyrocketed. This, in turn, prompted the clearing and/or burning of large swaths of the Amazonian rainforests and tropical savannas in Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer. More recently, large swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia’s equally biodiverse peatland forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations (Table 2 and Figure 3, bottom). In the latter countries, forest displacement is increasing by 2.7-5.3% per year, which is roughly equal to the the rate of land-use change associated with hydraulic fracturing here in the US4 (Figure 1).


Figures 1A and 1B. Palm Oil Production in A) Indonesia and B) Malaysia between 1960 and 2016.

There is an increasing amount of connectivity between disparate regions of the world with respect to energy consumption, extraction, and generation. These connections also affect how we define renewable or sustainable:

In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered. (Science, 2007)

These authors pointed to the fact that biofuel expectations and/or mandates fail to account for costs associated with atmospheric – and leaching – emissions of carbon, nitrogen, phophorus, etc. during the conversion of lands, including diverse rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands, to monocultures. Also overlooked were:

  • The ethical concerns associated with growing malnourishment from India to the United States,
  • The fact that 10-60%5 more fossil fuel derived energy is required to produce a unit of corn ethanol than is actually contained within this very biofuel, and
  • The tremendous “Global land and water grabbing” occuring in the name of natural resource security, commodification, and biofuel generation.

Sacrificing long-term ecological/food security in the name of short-term energy security has caused individuals and governments to focus on taking land out of food production and putting it into biofuels.

The rationale for ethanol subsidies has continually changed to meet shifting political winds. In the late 1970s ethanol was championed as a way to achieve energy independence. In the early 1980s ethanol was portrayed as salvation for struggling corn farmers. From the mid and late 1980s onward, ethanol has been justified as saving the environment. However, none of those claims can withstand serious examination. (James Bovard, 1995)

This is instead of going the more environmentally friendly route of growing biofuel feedstocks on degraded or abandoned lands. An example of such an endeavor is the voluntary US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has stabilized at roughly 45-57 thousand square miles of enrolled land since 1990, even though the average payout per acre has continued to climb (Figure 2).

The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

Figure 2. The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

The primary goals of the CRP program are to provide an acceptable “floor” for commodity prices, reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and improve water quality on highly erodible, degraded, or flood proned croplands. Interestingly CRP acreage has declined by 27% since a high of 56 thousand square miles prior to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 being passed. Researchers have pointed to the fact that corn ethanol production on CRP lands would create a carbon debt that would take 48 years to repay vs. a 93 year payback period for ethanol on Central US Grasslands.

To quote Fred Magdoff in The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels:

Alternative fuel sources are attractive because they can be developed and used without questioning the very workings of the economic system — just substitute a more “sustainable,” “ecologically sound,” and “renewable” energy for the more polluting, expensive, and finite amounts of oil. People are hoping for magic bullets to “solve” the problem so that capitalist societies can continue along their wasteful growth and consumption patterns with the least disruption. Although prices of fuels may come down somewhat — with dips in the business cycle, higher rates of production, or a burst in the speculative bubble in the futures market for oil — they will most likely remain at historically high levels as the reserves of easily recovered fuel relative to annual usage continues to decline.

Indirect Costs: Ethanol, Fertilizers, and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

This is the Midwest vs. the Middle East. It’s corn farmers vs. the oil companies. – Dwaney Andreas in Big Stink on the Farm by David Greising

Sixty-nine percent6 of North America’s ethanol refineries are within the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). These refineries collectively rely on corn that receives 1.9-5.1 million tons of nitrogen each year, with a current value of $1.06-2.91 billion dollars or 9,570-26,161 tons of nitrogen per refinery per year (i.e. $5.42-14.81 million per refinery per year). These figures account for 27-73% of all nitrogen fertilizer used in the MRB each year. More importantly, the corn acreage receiving this nitrogen leaches roughly 0.81-657 thousand tons of it directly into the MRB. Such a process amounts to 5-44% of all nitrogen discharged into the Gulf of Mexico each year and 1.7-13.8 million tons of algae responsible for the Gulf’s growing Dead Zone.

Midwest/Great Plains US Ethanol Refineries and Crop Residue Production

Leaching of this nitrogen is analogous to flushing $45.7-371.6 million dollars worth of precious capital down the drain. Put another way, these dollar figures translate into anywhere between 55% and an astonishing 4.53 times Direct Costs to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries of the Dead Zone itself.

These same refineries rely on corn acreage that also receives 0.53-2.61 million tons of phosphorus each year with a current value of 0.34-1.66 billion dollars. Each refinery has a phosphrous footprint in the range of 2,700 to 13,334 tons per year (i.e., $1.72-8.47 million). We estimate that 25,399-185,201 tons of this fertilizer phosphorus is leached into the the MRB, which is equivalent to 19% or as much as 1.42 times all the phosphorous dischared into the Gulf of Mexico per year. Such a process means $16.13-117.60 million is lost per year.

Together, the nitrogen and phosphorus leached from acreage allocated to corn ethanol have a current value that is between 75% and nearly 6 times the value lost every year to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries.

Indirect Costs: Fertilizer and Herbicide Costs and Leaching

The 270 ethanol refineries we have quality production data for are relying on corn that receives 367,772 tons of herbicide and insecticide each year, with a current value of $6.67 billion dollars or 1,362 tons of chemical preventitive per refinery per year (i.e. $24.7 million per refinery per year). More importantly the corn acreage receiving these inputs leaches roughly 15.8-128.7 thousand tons of it directly into surrounding watersheds and underlying aquifers. Leaching of these inputs is analogous to flushing $287 million to $2.3 billion dollars down the drain.

What’s Next?

During the recent Trump administration EPA, USDA, DOE administrator hearings, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was cited as critical to American energy independence by a bipartisan group of 23 senators. Among these were Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley, who co-wrote a letter to new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt demanding that the RFS remains robust and expands when possible. In the words of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp – and long-time ethanol supporter – straight from the heart of the Bakken Shale Revolution in North Dakota:

The RFS has worked well for North Dakota farmers, and I’m fighting to defend it. As we’re doing today in this letter, I’ll keep pushing in the U.S. Senate for the robust RFS [and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs)] we need to support a thriving biofuels industry and stand up for biofuels workers. Biofuels create good-paying jobs in North Dakota and help support our state’s farmers, who rely on this important market – particularly when commodity prices are challenging.

Furthermore, the entire Iowa congressional delegation including the aforementioned Sen. Grassley joined newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue when he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association:

You have nothing to worry about. Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay, and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient.

How this advocacy will play out and how the ethanol industry will respond (i.e., increase productivity per refinery or expand the number of refineries) is anybody’s guess. However, it sounds like the same language, lobbying, and advertising will continue to be used by the Ethanol and Unconventional Oil and Gas industries. Additional parallels are sure to follow with specific respect to water, waste, and land-use.

Furthermore, as both industries continue their ramp up in research and development, we can expect to see productivity per laborer to continue on an exponential path. The response in DC – and statehouses across the upper Midwest and Great Plains – will likely be further deregulation, as well.

From a societal perspective, an increase in ethanol production/grain diversion away from people’s plates has lead to a chicken-and-egg positive feedback loop, whereby our farmers continue to increase total and per-acre corn production with less and less people. In rural areas, mining and agriculture have been the primary employment sectors. A further mechanization of both will likely amplify issues related to education, drug dependence, and flight to urban centers (Figures 4A and B).

We still don’t know exactly how efficient ethanol refineries are relative to Greenhouse Gas Emissions per barrel of oil. By merging the above data with facility-level CO2 emissions from the EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) database we were able to match nearly 200 of the US ethanol refineries with their respective GHG emissions levels back to 2010. These facilities emit roughly:

  • 195,116 tons of CO2 per year, per facility,
  • A total of 36.97 million tons per year (i.e., 2.11 million Americans worth of emissions), and
  • 22,265 tons of CO2 per barrel of ethanol produced.

Emissions from ethanol will increase to 74.35 million tons in 2022 if the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s prescriptions run their course. Such an upward trend would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of somewhere between that of Seattle and Detroit.

What was once a singles match between Frackers and Sheikhs may turn into an Australian Doubles match with the Ethanol Lobby and Farm Bureau joining the fray. This ‘game’ will only further stress the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus from California to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachia.

We are on a thinner margin of food security, just as we are on a thinner margin of oil security… The [World] Bank implicitly questions whether it is wise to divert half of the world’s increased output of maize and wheat over the next decade into biofuels to meet government “mandates.” – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph

Will long-term agricultural security be sacrificed in the name of short-term energy independence?

US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figure 3. US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figures 4A and 4B. A) Number of Laborers in the US Mining, Oil and Gas, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting sector and B) US Corn Production Metrics Per Farm Laborer between 1947 and 2015.

Ethanol Tables

Table 1. Summary of our Corn Ethanol Production, Land-Use, and Water Demand analysis

Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Bushels of Corn Needed 6,374,148,571
Percent of US Production 44.73%
Land Needed 104,372,023 acres
“” 163,081 square miles
Percent of Contiguous US Land 5.51%
Percent of US Agricultural Land 11.28%
Gallons of Water Needed 49.76 trillion (i.e. 3.55 million swimming pools)
Gallons of Water Per Gallon of Oil 2,788
Average and Total Site/Industry Capacity
Average Corn Ethanol Production Per Existing or Under Construction Facility (n = 257) 69,717,250
Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Difference Between 2022 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 36 Billion Gallon Mandate 18,152,384,000
# of New Refineries Necessary to Get to 2022 Levels 260
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 1.7
IEA 2009 World Energy Outlook 250-620% Increase Predictions for 2030
250% 44,619,040,000
# of New Refineries Necessary 640
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 150.00
620% 110,655,219,200
# of New Refineries Necessary 1,587
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 520.00

Table 2. Global Population Growth and Corn and Soybean Productivity Trends.

Percent Change Metric
+1.13% Global Population Growth Trend
Corn (Bushels Per Acre)
+1.15% Per Year United States
+1.20% Per Year Global
Soybean (Tons Per Acre)
+0.9% Per Year United States
+1.5% Per Year Brazil
Palm Oil (Tons)
+5.1% Per Year Indonesia
+2.7% Per Year Malaysia

References and Footnotes

  1. Ethanol as defined in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Corporation Franchise Tax 5733.46 means “fermentation ethyl alcohol derived from agricultural products, including potatoes, cereal, grains, cheese whey, and sugar beets; forest products; or other renewable resources, including residue and waste generated from the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products, forest products, and other renewable resources that meet all of the specifications in the American society for testing and materials (ASTM) specification D 4806-88 and is denatured as specified in Parts 20 and 21 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
  2. A) Pyrolysis is included in the biofuel category and involves the anaerobic decay of cellulose rich feedstocks such as switchgrass at high temperatures producing synthetic diesel or syngas, and
    B) According to many researchers biofuels made from waste biomass or crops grown on degraded and abandoned lands with warm-season prairie grasses and legumes incur little or no carbon debt and provide “immediate and sustained Greenhouse Gas (GHG) advantages” by rehabilitating soil health and capturing, rather than emitting by way of increased fertilizer use, various forms of nitrogen including N2O, NO3, and NO2.
  3. According to Fred Magdoff, the ethanol complex is lobbying for “more automobile engines capable of using E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) for which there are currently 2,710 fueling stations across the country although 56% of them are in just nine states: 1) Wisconsin (117), 2) Missouri (107), 3) Minnesota (335), 4) Michigan (174), 5) Indiana (172), 6) Illinois (221),  7) Iowa (193), 8) Texas (99), and 9) Ohio (97). Some states are mandating a mixture greater than 10 percent. Ethanol can’t be shipped together with gasoline in pipelines because it separates from the mixture when moisture is present, so it must be trucked to where it will be mixed with gasoline.” The E-85 blend comes with its own costs including higher emissions of CO, VOC, PM10, SOx, and NOx than gasoline.
  4. McClaugherty, C., Auch, W. Genshock, E. and H. Buzulencia. (2017). Landscape impacts of infrastructure associated with Utica shale oil and gas extraction in eastern Ohio, Ecological Society of America, 100th Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, August, 2015.
  5. Hill et al. recently indicated “Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more.”
  6. An additional 9-10 refineries or 73% of all ethanol refineries are within 25 miles of the Mississippi River Basin.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo, left: Oil and gas well pad, Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch.
Cover photo, right: A typical ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Steven Vaughn.


Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the datasets used to create the maps in this article.

  1. Detailed US Ethanol water, land, chemical fertilizer, and herbicide demand
  2. Estimates of North American Ethanol Refinery’s water and land-use demand
Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

West Central Wisconsin’s Landscape and What Silica Sand Mining Has Done to It

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and Elliott Kurtz, GIS Intern

The Great Lakes may see a major increase in the number of sand mines developed in the name of fracking. What impacts has the area already seen, and does future development mean for the region’s ecosystem and land use?

Introduction

Sand is a necessary component of today’s oil and gas extraction industry for use in propping open the cracks that fracking creates. Silica sand is a highly sought after proppant for this purpose and often found in Wisconsin and Michigan. At the present time here in Ohio our Utica laterals are averaging 4,300-5,000 tons of silica sand or “proppant” with demand increasing by 85+ tons per lateral per quarter.

Wisconsin’s 125+ silica sand mines and processing facilities are spread out across 15,739 square miles of the state’s West Central region, adjacent to the Minnesota border in the Northern Mississippi Valley. These mines have dramatically altered the landscape while generating proppant for the shale gas industry; approximately 2.5 million tons of sand are extracted per mine. The length of the average shale gas lateral well grows by > 50 feet per quarter, so we expect silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral. To meet this increase in demand, additional mines are being proposed near the Great Lakes.

Migration of the sand industry from the Southwest to the Great Lakes in search of this silica sand has had a large impact on regional ecosystem productivity and watershed resilience[1]. The land in the Great Lakes region is more productive, from a soil and biomass perspective; much of the Southwest sandstone geology is dominated by scrublands that have accrue plant biomass at much slower rates, while the Great Lakes host productive forests and agricultural land. Great Lakes ecosystems produce 1.92 times more soil organic matter and 1.46 times more perennial biomass than Southwestern ecosystems.

Effects on the Great Lakes

Quantifying what the landscape looks like now will serve as a baseline for understanding how the silica sand industry will have altered the overall landscape, much like Appalachia is doing today in the aftermath of strip-mining and Mountaintop Removal Mining[2]. West Central Wisconsin (WCW) has a chance to learn from the admittedly short-cited and myopic mistakes of their brethren across the coalfields of Appalachia.

Herein we aim to present numbers speaking to the diversity and distribution of WCW’s “working landscape” across eight types of land-cover. We will then present numbers speaking to how the silica mining industry has altered the region to date and what these numbers mean for reclamation. The folks at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy , and Management describe “Working Landscapes” as follows:

a broad term that expresses the goal of fostering landscapes where production of market goods and ecosystem services is mutually reinforcing. It means working with people as partners to create landscapes and ecosystems that benefit humanity and the planet… A goal is finding management and policy synergies—practices and policies that enhance production of multiple ecosystem services as well as goods for the market…Collaborative management processes can help discover synergies and create better decisions and policy. Incentives can help private landowners support management that benefits society.

Methods

We used the 1993 WISCLAND satellite imagery to determine how WCW’s landscape is partitioned and then we applied these data to an updated inventory of silica sand mine boundaries to determine what existed within their boundaries prior to mining. The point locations of Wisconsin’s current inventory of silica sand mines was determined using the “Geocode Address” function in ArcMap 10.2 using the Composite_US Address Locator. Addresses were drawn from mine inventory information originally maintained by the West Central WI Regional Planning Commission (WCWRPC) and now managed by the WI Department of Natural Resources’ Mines, pits and quarries division. Meanwhile current mine extent boundary polygons were determined using one of three satellite data-sets:

  1. 2013 imagery from the USDA National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP),
  2. 2014 ArcMap 10.2 World Imagery, and
  3. 2014 Google Satellite.

What We Found

Land Cover Types Replaced by Silica Sand Mining

Sand-LandEffects

Fig 1. Square mileage of various land cover types replaced by silica sand mining in WCW

Thirty-nine percent of the WCW landscape is currently allocated to forests, 43% to agriculture broadly speaking, and 13% is occupied by various types of wetlands. Open waters occupy 2.6% of the landscape with tertiary uses including barren lands (1.3%), golf courses (0.03%), high and low-density urban areas (0.9%), and miscellaneous shrublands (0.6%) (See Figure 1).

Effects by Land Cover Type

Figure 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Fig 2. Forest Cover in WCW

Figure 3. Agricultural Cover

Fig 3. Agricultural Cover

Figure 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Fig 4. Open Water & Wetland Cover

Figure 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Fig 5. Forested Wetland Cover

Figure 6. Lowland Shrub Wetland Cover

Fig 6. Lowland Shrub Wetlands

Figure 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Fig 7. Miscellaneous Cover

Figure 2. The wood in these forests has a current stumpage value of $253-936 million and by way of photosynthesis accumulates 63 to 131 million tons of CO2 and has accumulated 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 if we assumed that on average forests in this region are 65-85 years old. Putting a finer point on WCW forest cover and associated quantifiables is difficult because most of these tracts (2.7 million acres) fall within a catchall category called “Mixed Forest”. Pine (2.3% of the region), Aspen (4.7%), and Oak (3.8%) most of the remaining 1.2 million forested acres with much less sugar (Acer saccharum) and soft (Acer rubrum) maple acreage than we expected scattered in a horseshoe fashion across the Northeastern portion of the study area.

Figure 3. Seven different agricultural land-uses occupy 4.3 million WCW acres with forage crops and grasslands constituting 29% of the region followed by 1.4 million acres of row crops and miscellaneous agricultural activities. Additionally, 2% of WI’s 19,700 cranberry bog acres are within the study area generating $4.02 million worth of cranberries per year. The larger agricultural categories generate $3.2 billion worth of commodities.

Figure 4. Nearly 16% of WCW is characterized by open waters or various types of wetlands with a total area of 2,396 square miles clustered primarily in two Northeast and one Southeast segment. Open waters occupy 398 square miles with forested wetlands – possibly vernal pool-type systems – amounting to 5.4% of the region or 841 square miles. Lowland shrub and emergent/wet meadows occupy 540 and 618 square miles, respectively.

Figure 5. Of the nine types of wetlands present in this region the forested broad-leaved deciduous and emergent/wet meadow variety constitute the largest fraction of the region at 1,107 square miles (7.1% of region). Some percentage of the former would likely be defined by Wisconsin DNR as vernal pools, which do the following according to their Ephemeral Pond program. The WI DNR doesn’t include silica sand mining in its list of 14 threats to vernal pools or potential conservation actions, however.

These ponds are depressions with impeded drainage (usually in forest landscapes), that hold water for a period of time following snowmelt and spring rains but typically dry out by mid-summer…They flourish with productivity during their brief existence and provide critical breeding habitat for certain invertebrates, as well as for many amphibians such as wood frogs and salamanders. They also provide feeding, resting and breeding habitat for songbirds and a source of food for many mammals. Ephemeral ponds contribute in many ways to the biodiversity of a woodlot, forest stand and the larger landscape…they all broadly fit into a community context by the following attributes: their placement in woodlands, isolation, small size, hydrology, length of time they hold water, and composition of the biological community (lacking fish as permanent predators).

Figure 6. Broad-leaved evergreen lowland shrub wetlands constitute ≈2.1% of the region or 319 square miles with most occurring around the Legacy Boggs silica mines and several cranberry operations turned silica mines in Jackson County. Meanwhile broad-leaved deciduous and needle-leaved lowland shrub wetlands are largely outside the current extent of silica sand mining in the region occupying 1.9% of the region with 293 square miles spread out within the northeastern 1/5th of the study area.

Figure 7. Finally, miscellaneous land-covers include 200 square miles of barren land, 145 square miles of low/high intensity urban areas including the cities of Eau Claire (Pop. 67,545) and Stevens Point (Pop. 26,670) as well as towns like Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, Merrill, and Rib Mountain-Weston. WCW also hosts 3,204 acres (0.03% of region) worth of golf courses which amounts to roughly 21 courses assuming the average course is 157 acres. Shrublands broadly defined occur throughout 0.6% of the region scattered throughout the southeast corner and north-central sixth of the region, with the both amalgamations poised to experience significant replacement or alteration as they are adjacent to two large silica mine groupings.

Producing Mine Land-Use/Land-Cover Change

To date we have established the current extent of land-use/land-cover change associated with 25 producing silica mines occupying 12 square miles of WCW. These mines have displaced 3 square miles of forests and 7 square miles of agricultural land-cover. These forested tracts accumulated 31,446-64,610 tons of CO2 per year or 2.4-4.9 million tons over the average lifespan of a typical Wisconsin forest. These values equate to the emissions of 144,401-295,956 Wisconsinites or 2.5-5.1% of the state’s population. The annual wood that was once generated on these parcels would have had a market value of $126,097-197,084 per year. Meanwhile the above agricultural lands would be generating roughly $1.5-3.3 million in commodities if they had not been displaced.

However, putting aside measurable market valuations it turns out the most concerning result of this analysis is that these mines have displaces 871 acres of wetlands which equals 11% of all mined lands. This alteration includes 158 acres of formerly forested wetlands, 352 acres of lowland shrub wetlands, and 361 acres of emergent/wet meadows. As we mentioned previously, the chance that these wetlands will be reconstituted to support their original plant and animal assemblages is doubtful.

We know that the St. Peter Sandstone formation is the primary target of the silica sand industry with respect to providing proppant for the shale gas industry. We also know that this formation extend across seven states and approximately 8,884 square miles, with all 91 square miles overlain by wetlands in Wisconsin. To this end carbon-rich grasslands soils or Mollisols, which we discussed earlier, sit atop 36% of the St. Peter Sandstone and given that these soils are alread endangered from past agricultural practices as well as current O&G exploration this is just another example of how soils stand to be dramatically altered by the full extent of the North American Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex. The following IFs would undoubtedly have a dramatic effect on the ability of the ecosystems overlying the St. Peter Sandstone to capture and store CO2 to the extent that they are today not to mention dramatically alter the landscape’s ability to capture, store, and purify precipitation inputs.

  • IF silica sand mining continues at the rate it is on currently
  • IF reclamation continues to result in “very poor stand of grass with some woody plants of very poor quality and little value on the whole for wildlife. Some areas may be reclaimed as crop land, however it is our opinion that substantial inputs such as commercial fertilizer as well as irrigation will be required in most if not all cases in order to produce an average crop.”
  • IF the highly productive temperate forests described above are not reassembled on similar acreage to their extent prior to mining and reclamation is largely to the very poor stands of grass mentione above
    • For example: Great Lakes forests like the ones sitting atop the St. Peter Sandstone capture 20.9 tons of CO2 per acre per year Vs their likely grass/scrublands replacement which capture 10.6-12.8 tons of CO2 per acre per year… You do the math!
  • “None two sites are capable of supporting the growing of food. They grow trees and some cover grass, but that is all. General scientific research says that the reclaimed soils lose up to 75% of their agricultural productivity.”

Quote from a concerned citizen:

I often wonder what it was like before the boom, before fortunes were built on castles of sand and resultant moonscapes stretched as far as the eye could see. In the past few years alone, the nickname the “Silica Sand Capital of the World” has become a curse rather than a blessing for the citizens of LaSalle County, Illinois. Here, the frac sand industry continues to proliferate and threaten thewellbeing of our people and rural ecosystem.

Additional Testimonials

References & Resources

  1. The US Forest Service defined Watershed Resilience as “Over time, all watersheds experience a variety of disturbance events such as fires and floods [and mining]. Resilient watersheds have the ability to recover promptly from such events and even be renewed by them. Much as treating forests can make them more resilient to wildfire, watershed restoration projects can improve watershed resilience to both natural and human disturbances.”
  2. Great example: Virginia Tech’s Powell River Project

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

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.

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