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Early Construction (2016) of Shell Ethane Cracker in Monaca, Beaver County, Pennsylvania

House Bill 1100: What you need to know

Pennsylvania’s House Bill 1100, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Turzai, has passed through the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support. If approved, the bill would provide billions of dollars in subsidies to energy and fertilizer companies that use fracked natural gas as feedstock.

The Bill is part of “Energize PA,” a package of bills that encourage natural gas and petrochemical development by providing companies with streamlined permitting processes and subsidies. The Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County received $1.6 billion in state subsidies, the largest tax break in state history. HB1100 would provide similar tax credits to additional petrochemical and natural gas projects.

According to its Republican sponsors, HB1100 is “designed to make Pennsylvania attractive to outside businesses, create family-sustaining jobs and provide economic benefits to underserved regions, without creating any new fees or taxes.” Indeed, the cumulative wage impacts of the Appalachian basin shale gas build-out was around $21 billion from 2004 to 2016, according to a 2019 Carnegie Mellon University study.

March 25, 2020 Update

After weeks of sitting on the bill, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed HB1100, and the Pennsylvania Senate submitted it to Governor Wolf on March 18. This came amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Governor is still expected to veto the bill, after which point, the General Assembly is likely to attempt an override.

March 27, 2020 Update

Governor Wolf said in his press release:

“Rather than enacting this bill, which gives a significant tax credit for energy and fertilizer manufacturing projects, we need to work together in a bipartisan manner to promote job creation and to enact financial stimulus packages for the benefit of Pennsylvanians who are hurting as they struggle with the substantial economic fallout of COVID-19.” Read the full press release here.

Some lawmakers have said that they will attempt to override the veto.

 

Fiscal Responsibility

However, both Energize PA and HB1100 have been criticized for their overall economic inefficacy and environmental externalities. The aforementioned CMU study found that the cumulative air pollution damage cost about $23 billion and the cumulative greenhouse gas damage reached $34 billion, leading the authors to conclude that the negative environmental and health externalities outweigh the benefits of shale gas development.

Diana Polson, Senior Policy Analyst at Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, has also raised concerns about the economics of the petrochemical buildout in Pennsylvania. At a recent town hall meeting in Millvale, Pennsylvania, she made the point that tax incentives are rarely a deciding factor in a company’s decision on where to operate. This means that initiatives like “Energize PA” have little impact in terms of private investment decisions. Many factors outweigh the impact that tax credits have on a private company’s bottom line, such as proximity to a strong workforce, other existing industries, and access to supply chains.

Employment

What about job creation? The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue estimates that the HB1100 tax credit program would cost the Commonwealth $22 million per plant per year over the next 30 years. Diana Polson estimates that this would equate to about $8.8 million per permanent job over the course of the tax break.

This cost-to-job ratio is unacceptable to representatives like Sara Innamorato. “According to Shell, the cracker plant in Beaver will support 6,000 construction jobs at the peak of work, but will only lead to a possible 600 permanent jobs. Each of these jobs costs $2.75 million in subsidies — money that could have sustained many more families currently struggling to make ends meet in our communities,” the State Representative wrote. “Imagine how many workers we could employ with that level of investment in rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, replacing lead pipes, and repairing bus-swallowing sinkholes.”

Corporate tax revenue has fallen to 14% of Pennsylvania’s General Fund revenue, about half of what it was in the 1970’s. Without these corporate tax cuts, Pennsylvania would have about $4 billion more in corporate tax revenue per year than it does today. Critics like Innamorato believe that the state should respond to an already large public investment deficit by subsidizing investments such as education, human services, infrastructure, and environmental protection. HB1100 runs counter such public investments, particularly Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s efforts to instate a severance tax on fracking operations that would subsidize infrastructure projects.

Environmental & Climate Impacts

Critics of HB1100 also raise environmental concerns. Much of the petrochemical buildout in the Appalachian basin would produce plastics, exacerbating the problem of single-use plastic pollution. There are also worries about the industry’s contributions to climate change. A recent report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 coal-fired power plants. Locking in these emissions for decades to come has some wondering how Pennsylvania will reach its carbon budget goal of 58 million tons of CO2 in 2050.

 

Health Concerns

In addition to economic and environmental concerns, HB1100 has come under criticism for its potential to worsen the health impacts associated with natural gas and petrochemical development, which range from asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, strokes, abnormal heart rhythms and heart attacks. Research has also shown that natural gas and petrochemical development increase the risk of cancer, and there is growing evidence that air pollution affects fetal development and adverse birth outcomes.

Moving Forward

It is now in the hands of Governor Wolf to either pass or veto HB1100. Wolf’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said that the governor “believes such projects should be evaluated on a specific case-by-case basis. However, if there was a specific project, he would be open to a conversation.”

One in three jobs in Pennsylvania’s energy sector are in clean energy. Many taxpayers will continue to push for policies that support this kind of job creation and investment in public services and infrastructure. Will our Commonwealth leaders listen, or will they continue to prioritize fossil fuel companies?

Learn More

Visualize the petrochemical buildout by exploring FracTracker’s maps.

Attend an informative press conference

Penn Future and dozens of other groups are holding a press conference in Harrisburg on March 9th.

Harrisburg Press Conference - March 9

When: Monday, March 9, 10:00 – 11:00 AM
Where: Pennsylvania State Capitol – Main Rotunda
State and Third Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101

The list of speakers is subject to change. Current confirmed speakers include:
Jacquelyn Bonomo, President and C.E.O., PennFuture
State Representative Sara Innamorato, (21st House District)
State Representative Chris Rabb, (200th House District)
State Representative Carolyn Comitta, (156th House District)
State Senator Katie Muth, (44th Senatorial District)
Veronica Coptis, Executive Director, The Center for Coalfield Justice
Ashleigh Deemer, Deputy Director, PennEnvironment
Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Temple Hesed
Briann Moye, One Pennsylvania

You can contact PennFuture Western Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator, Kelsey Krepps, at krepps@pennfuture.org or (412) 224 – 4477 with any questions or concerns.

Cover photo showing early construction (2016) of the Shell Ethane Cracker in Beaver County, PA. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk. Provided by FracTracker Alliance, fractracker.org/photos.

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Overhead view of injection well

The Hidden Inefficiencies and Environmental Costs of Fracking in Ohio

Ohio continues to increase fracked gas production, facilitated by access to freshwater and lax radioactive waste disposal requirements.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map: Ohio Quarterly Utica Oil and Gas Production along with Quarterly Wastewater Disposal

Well Volumes

A little under a year ago, FracTracker released a map and associated analysis, “A Disturbing Tale of Diminishing Returns in Ohio,” with respect to Utica oil and gas production, highlighting the increasing volume of waste injected in wastewater disposal wells, and trends in lateral length in fracked wells from 2010 to 2018. In this article, I’ll provide an update on Ohio’s Utica oil and gas production in 2018 and 2019, the demands on freshwater, and waste disposal. After looking at the data, I recommend that we holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste in order to minimize negative externalities.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by the works of Colin Woodward[1] and Marvin Harris, who outline the struggle between liberty and the common good. They relate this to the role that commodities and increasing resource intensity play in maintaining or enhancing living standards. This quote from Harris’s “Cannibals and Kings” struck me as the 122 words that most effectively illustrate the impacts of the fracking boom that started more than a decade ago in Central Appalachia:

“Regardless of its immediate cause, intensification is always counterproductive. In the absence of technological change, it leads inevitably to the depletion of the environment and the lowering of the efficiency of production since the increased effort sooner or later must be applied to more remote, less reliable, and less bountiful animals, plants, soils, minerals, and sources of energy. Declining efficiency in turn leads to low living standards – precisely the opposite of the desired result. But this process does not simply end with everybody getting less food, shelter, and other necessities in return for more work. As living standards decline, successful cultures invent new and more efficient means of production which sooner or later again lead to the depletion of the natural environment.” From Chapter 1, page 5 of Marvin Harris’ “Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures, 1977

In reflecting on Harris’s quote as it pertains to fracking, I thought it was high time I updated several of our most critical data sets. The maps and data I present here speak to intensification and the fact that the industry is increasingly leaning on cheap water withdrawals, landscape impacts, and waste disposal methods to avoid addressing their increasingly gluttonous ways. To this point, the relationship between intensification and resource utilization is not just the purview of activists, academics, and journalists anymore; industry collaborators like IHS Markit admitting as much in their latest analysis pointing to the fact that oil and gas operators “will have to drill substantially more wells just to maintain current production levels and even more to grow production”. Insert Red Queen Hypothesis analogy here!

Oil and Gas Production in Ohio

The four updated data sets presented here are: 1) oil, gas, and wastewater production, 2) surface and groundwater withdrawal rates for the fracking industry, 3) freshwater usage by individual Ohio fracked wells, and 3) wastewater disposal well (also referred to as Class II injection wells) rates.

Below are the most important developments from these data updates as it pertains to intensification and what we can expect to see in the future, with or without the ethane cracker plants being trumpeted throughout Appalachia.

From a production standpoint, total oil production has increased by 30%, while natural gas production has increased by 50% year over year between the last time we updated this data and Q2-2019 (Table 1).

According to the data we’ve compiled, the rate of growth for wastewater production has exceeded oil and is nearly equal to natural gas at 48% from 2017 to 2018.  On average the 2,398 fracked wells we have compiled data for are producing 27% more wastewater per well now than they did at the end of 2017.

————–2017————– ————–2019————–
Oil (million barrels) Gas (million Mcf) Brine (million barrels) Oil (million barrels) Gas (million Mcf) Brine (million barrels)
Max 0.51 12.92 0.23 0.62 17.57 0.32
Total 83.14 5,768.47 76.01 108.15 8,679.12 112.28
Mean 0.40 2.79 0.37 0.45 3.62 0.47

Table 1. Summary statistics for 2,398  fracked wells in Ohio from a production perspective from 2017 to Q2 2019.

 

Total fracked gas produced per quarter and average fracked gas produced per well in Ohio from 2013 to Q2-2019.

Figure 1. Total fracked gas produced per quarter and average fracked gas produced per well in Ohio from 2013 to Q2-2019.

The increasing amount of resources and number of wells necessary to achieve marginal increases in oil and gas production is a critical factor to considered when assessing industry viability and other long-term implications. As an example, in Ohio’s Utica Shale, we see that total production is increasing, but as IHS Markit admits, this is only possibly by increasing the total number of producing wells at a faster rate. As is evidenced in Figure 1, somewhere around the Winter of 2017-2018, the production rate per well began to flatline and since then it has begun to decrease.

Water demands for oil and gas production in Ohio

Since last we updated the industry’s water withdrawal rates, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has begun to report groundwater rates in addition to surface water. The former now account for nine sites in seven counties, but amount to a fraction of reported withdrawals to date (around 00.01% per year in 2017 and 2018). The more disturbing developments with respect to intensification are:

1) Since we last updated this data, 59 new withdrawal sites have come online. There are currently 569 sites in total in ODNR’s database. This amounts to a nearly 12% increase in the total number of sites since 2017. With this additional inventory, the average withdrawal rate across all sites has increased by 13% (Table 2).

2) Since 2010, the demand for freshwater to be used in fracking has increased by 15.6% or 693 million gallons per year (Figure 2).

3) We expect to see an inflection point when water production will increase to accommodate the petrochemical buildout with cracker plants in Dilles Bottom, OH; Beaver County, PA; and elsewhere. In 2018 alone, the oil and gas industry pulled 4.69 billion gallons of water from the Ohio River Valley. Since 2010, the industry has permanently removed 22.96 billion gallons of freshwater from the Ohio River Valley. It would take the entire population of Ohio five years to use the 2018 rate in their homes.[2]

As we and others have mentioned in the past, this trend is largely due to the bargain basement price at which we sell water to the oil and gas sector throughout Appalachia.[3] To increase their nominal production returns, companies construct longer laterals with orders of magnitude more water, sand, and chemicals.  At this rate, the fracking industry’s freshwater demand will have doubled to around 8.8-.9.5 billion gallons per year by around 2023.  Figure 3 demonstrates that average fracked lateral length continues to increase to the tune of +15.7-21.2% (+1,564-2,107 feet) per quarter per lateral. This trend alone is more than 2.5 times the rate of growth in oil production and roughly 24% greater than the rate of growth in natural gas production (See Table 1).

4. The verdict is even more concerning than it was a couple years ago with respect to water demand increasing by 30% per quarter per well or an average of 4.73 million gallons (Figure 4). The last time we did this analysis >1.5 years ago demand was rising by 25% per quarter or 3.84 million gallons. At that point I wouldn’t have guessed that this exponential rate of water demand would have increased but that is exactly what has happened. Very immediate conversations must start taking place in Columbus and at the region’s primary distributor of freshwater, The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD), as to why this is happening and how to push back against the unsustainable trend.

2017 2018
Sites 510 569
Maximum (billion gallons) 1.059 1.661
Sum (billion gallons) 18.267 22.957
Mean (billion gallons) 0.358 0.404

Table 2. Summary of fracking water demands throughout Ohio in 2017 when we last updated this data as well as how those rates changed in 2018.

Hydraulic fracturing freshwater demand in total across 560+ sites in Ohio from 2010 to 2018 (Million Gallons Per Year).

Figure 2. Hydraulic fracturing freshwater demand in total across 560+ sites in Ohio from 2010 to 2018 (million gallons per year).

Average lateral length for all of Ohio’s permitted hydraulically fractured laterals from from Q3-2010 to Q4-2019, along with average rates of growth from a linear and exponential standpoint (Feet).

Figure 3. Average lateral length for all of Ohio’s permitted hydraulically fractured laterals from from Q3-2010 to Q4-2019, along with average rates of growth from a linear and exponential standpoint (feet).

Average Freshwater Demand Per Unconventional Well in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019 (Million Gallons).

Figure 4. Average Freshwater Demand Per Unconventional Well in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019 (million gallons).

 

Waste Disposal

When it comes to fracking wastewater disposal, the picture is equally disturbing. Average disposal rates across Ohio’s 220+ wastewater disposal wells increased by 12.1% between Q3-2018 and Q3-2019 (Table 3). Interestingly, this change nearly identically mirrors the change in water withdrawals during the same period. What goes down– freshwater – eventually comes back up.

Across all of Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells, total volumes increased by nearly 22% between 2018 and the second half of 2019. However, the more disturbing trend is the increasing focus on the top 20 most active wastewater disposal wells, which saw  an annual increase of 17-18%. These wells account for nearly 50% of all waste and the concern here is that many of the pending wastewater disposal well permits are located on these sites, within close proximity, and/or are proposed by the same operators that operate the top 20.

When we plot cumulative and average disposal rates per well, we see a continued exponential increase. If we look back at the last time, we conducted this analysis, the only positive we see in the data is that at that time, average rates of disposal per well were set to double by the Fall of 2020. However, that trend has tapered off slightly — rates are now set to double by 2022.

Each wastewater disposal well is seeing demand for its services increase by 2.42 to 2.94 million gallons of wastewater per quarter (Figure 5). Put another way, Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells are rapidly approaching their capacity, if they haven’t already.  Hence why the oil and gas industry has been frantically submitting proposals for additional waste disposal wells. If these wells materialize, it means that Ohio will continue to be relied on as the primary waste receptacle for the fracking industry throughout Appalachia.

Variable ——————-All Wells——————- ——————-Top 20——————-
To Q3-2018 To Q3-2019 % Change To Q3-2018 To Q3-2019 % Change
Number of Wells 223 243 +9.0 ——- ——- ——-
Max (MMbbl) 1.12 1.20 +7.1 ——- ——- ——-
Sum (MMbbl) 203.19 247.05 +21.6 101.43 119.31 +17.6
Average (MMbbl) 0.91 1.02 +12.1 5.07 5.97 +17.8

Table 3. Summary Statistics for Ohio’s Wastewater Disposal Wells (millions of barrels (MMbbl)).

Average Fracking Waste Disposal across all of Ohio’s Class II Injection Wells and the cumulative amount of fracking waste disposed of in these wells from Q3-2010 to Q2-2019 (Million Barrels).

Figure 5. Average Fracking Waste Disposal across all of Ohio’s Wastewater Disposal Wells and the cumulative amount of fracking waste disposed of in these wells from Q3-2010 to Q2-2019 (million barrels).

Using the Pennsylvania natural gas data merged with the Ohio wastewater data, we were able to put a finer point on how much wastewater would be produced with a 100,000 barrel ethane cracker like the one PTT Global Chemical has proposed for Dilles Bottom, Ohio. The following are our best estimate calculations assuming 1 barrel of condensate is 20-40% ethane. These calculations required that we take some liberties with the merge of the ratio of gas to wastewater in Ohio with the ratio of gas to condensate in Pennsylvania:

  1. For 2,064 producing Ohio fracked wells, the ratio of gas to wastewater is 64.76 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of gas produced per barrel of wastewater.
  2. Assuming 40% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 320.08 Mcf of gas per barrel of ethane condensate. For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day, that would result in 494,285 barrels (20.76 million gallons) of brine per day.
  3. Assuming 20% ethane, the ratio of gas to condensate in Washington County, PA wells for the first half of 2019 was 640.15 Mcf per barrel of ethane condensate = For 100,000 barrels of ethane needed per cracker per day that would result in 988,571 barrels/41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day.

But wait, here is the real stunner:

  1. The 40% assumption result is 3.81 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 5.37 times the daily rates of brine taken in by the top 20 wells (Note: the top 20 wastewater disposal wells account for 71% of all wastewater  waste taken in by all of the state’s disposal wells).
  2. The 20% assumption result is 7.62 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by our current inventory of wastewater disposal wells and 10.74 times the daily rates of wastewater taken in by the top 20 wells.

Therefore, we estimate the fracked wells supplying the proposed PTTGC ethane cracker will generate between 20.76 million and 41.52 million gallons of wastewater per day. That is 3.8 to 7.6 times the amount of wastewater currently received by Ohio’s wastewater disposal wells.

What does this means in terms of truck traffic? We can assume that  at least 80% of the trucks that transport wastewater are the short/baby bottle trucks which haul 110 barrels per trip. This means that our wastewater estimates would require between 4,493 and 8,987 truck trips per day, respectively. The pressures this amount of traffic will put on Appalachian roads and communities will be hard to measure and given the current state of state and federal politics and/or oversight it will be even harder to measure the impact inevitable spills and accidents will have on the region’s waterways.

Conclusion

There is no reason to believe these trends will not persist and become more intractable as the industry increasingly leans on cheap waste disposal and water as a crutch. The fracking industry will continue to present shareholders with the illusion of a robust business model, even in the face of rapid resource depletion and precipitous production declines on a per well basis.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that unless we more holistically price our water resources and the ways in which we dispose of the industry’s radioactive waste, there will be no other supply-side signal that we could send that would cause the oil and gas industry to change its ways. Until we reach that point, we will continue to compile data sets like the ones described above and included in the map below, because as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant!”

By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance with invaluable data compilation assistance from Gary Allison

[1] Colin Woodward’s “American Character: A history of the epic struggle between individual liberty and the common good” is a must read on the topic of resource utilization and expropriation.

[2] https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/cir1441

[3] In Ohio the major purveyor of water for the fracking industry is the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MCWD) and as we’ve pointed out in the past they sell water for roughly $4.50 to $6.50 per thousand gallons. Meanwhile across The Ohio River the average price of water for fracking industry in West Virginia in the nine primary counties where fracking occurs is roughly $8.38 per thousand gallons.

Data Downloads

Quarterly oil, gas, brine, and days in production for 2,390+ Unconventional Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio from 2010 to Q2-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Production_To_Q2_2019_WithExcel.zip

Ohio Hydraulic Fracturing Freshwater and Groundwater Withdrawals from 2010 to 2018

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_WaterWithdrawals_2010_2018_WithExcel.zip

Lateral length (Feet) for 3,200+ Fracked Utica/Point Pleasant Wells in Ohio up to and including wells permitted in December, 2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/OH_Utica_December_2019_StatePlane_Laterals.zip

Freshwater Use for 2,700+ Unconventional Wells in Ohio from Q3-2011 to Q3-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_FracFocus_December_2019_WithExcel.zip

Quarterly Volume Disposal (Barrels) for 220+ Ohio Class II Salt Water Disposal Wells from 2010 to Q4-2019

https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/OH_ClassII_Loc_Vols_10_Q4_2019_WithExcel.zi

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Freiburg Recycling

The Circular Economy: What it means for Fracking and Plastic

Who Pays? Health and Economic Impacts of Fracking in Pennsylvania

Since the advent of unconventional shale gas drilling, some effects have been immediate, some have emerged over time, and some are just becoming apparent. Two reports recently published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network advance our understanding of the breadth of the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. The first report, written by FracTracker, reviews research on the ways fracking impacts the health of Pennsylvanians. The second report by ECONorthwest calculates the economic costs of the industry.

“Fracking is heavily impacting Pennsylvania in multiple ways but the burden is not being fairly and openly calculated. These reports reveal the health effects and economic costs of fracking and the astounding burdens people and communities are carrying,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Learn what the latest science and analysis tells us about the costs of fracking, who is paying now, and what the future price is forecasted to be.

Access the full reports here:

 

Health Impact Report

“Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania,”  FracTracker Alliance, 2019 Issue Paper

Economic Impact Report

“The Economic Costs of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” ECONorthwest, 2019 Issue Paper

 

From the Experts

“The FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the literature studying the impact of unconventional oil and gas on health. Findings of this review show a dramatic increase in the breadth and volume of literature published since 2016, with 89% of the literature reporting that drilling proximity has human health effects. Pennsylvanian communities were the most studied sample populations with 49% of reviewed journal articles focused on Marcellus Shale development. These studies showed health impacts including cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms were correlated with living near unconventional oil and gas development for Pennsylvania and other frontline communities.”

Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance Western Program Coordinator

 

Rig and house. Westwood Lake Park. Photo by J Williams, 2013.

“Fracking wells have an extensive presence across Pennsylvania’s landscape – 20 percent of residents live within 2 miles of a well. This is close enough to cause adverse health outcomes. Collectively we found annual costs of current fracking activity over $1 billion, with cumulative costs given continued fracking activity over the next 20 years of over $50 billion in net present value for the effects that we can monetize. The regional economic benefits also seem to be less than stated, as the long-term benefits for local economies are quite low, and can disrupt more sustainable and beneficial economic trajectories that might not be available after a community has embraced fracking.”

Mark Buckley, Senior Economist at the natural resource practice at
ECONorthwest

 

These reports on the health effects and economic impacts of unconventional oil and natural gas development yield disheartening results. There are risks of extremely serious health issues for families in impacted areas, and the long term economic returns for communities are negative.

Arming ourselves with knowledge is an important first step towards the renewable energy transformation that is so clearly needed. The stakes are too high to allow the oil and natural gas industries to dictate the physical, social, and economic health of Pennsylvanians.

https://www.kvpr.org/post/dormant-risky-new-state-law-aims-prevent-problems-idle-oil-and-gas-wells

Idle Wells are a Major Risk

Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians 

Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”

A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.

Well plugging

Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.

While plugging a well does not entirely eliminate all risk of groundwater contamination or leaking greenhouse gases, (read more on FracTracker’s coverage of plugged wells) it does reduce these risks. The longer wells are left idle, the higher the risk of well casing failure. Over half of California’s idle wells have been idle for more than 10 years, and about 4,700 have been idle for over 25 years. A report by the U.S. EPA noted that California does not provide the necessary regulatory oversite of idle wells to protect California’s underground sources of drinking water.

Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin.  While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.

Orphaned wells

Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.

The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.

Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.

Where are they?

Map of California’s Idle Wells


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California.  There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.

Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.

The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively).  Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.

Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Operator Name Idle Well Count
1 Chevron U.S.A. Inc. 6,292
2 Aera Energy LLC 5,811
3 California Resources Production Corporation 3,708
4 California Resources Elk Hills, LLC 2,016
5 Berry Petroleum Company, LLC 1,129
6 E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation 991
7 Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC 842
8 HVI Cat Canyon, Inc. 534
9 Seneca Resources Company, LLC 349
10 Crimson Resource Management Corp. 333

 

Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Oil Field Count by Field
1 Midway-Sunset 5,333
2 Unspecified 2,385
3 Kern River 2,217
4 Belridge, South 2,075
5 Coalinga 1,729
6 Elk Hills 958
7 Buena Vista 887
8 Lost Hills 731
9 Cymric 721
10 Cat Canyon 661

 

Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
County Count by County
1 Kern 17,276
2 Los Angeles 3,217
3 Fresno 2,296
4 Ventura 2,022
5 Santa Barbara 1,336
6 Orange 752
7 Monterey 399
8 Kings 212
9 San Luis Obispo 202
10 Sutter 191

 

Risks

According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!

Nobody knows how many orphaned wells are actually out there, beneath homes, in forests, or in the fields of farmers. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are more than 1 million of them across the country, most of them undocumented. In California, DOGGR officially reports that there are 885 orphaned wells in the state.

A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:

  • State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies

Current regulation

As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees.  The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:

  • $150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
  • $300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
  • $750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
  • $1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer

Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.

In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”

While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.

Who is responsible?

All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.

To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.

Individual well fees:

  • Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
  • Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000

Blanket fees:

  • Less than 50 wells: $200,000
  • 50 to 500 wells: $400,000
  • 500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
  • Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000

With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.

Conclusions

Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo: Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio

Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Governor Brown’s Climate Summit Heats up Political Climate

Overview

California has become a battleground for real climate action. The state Governor, Jerry Brown prides himself in his own climate leadership, and California has pushed EU nations and countries worldwide to take climate change seriously. As a final tribute to his own tenure as a term-limited governor, Brown has organized and hosted a Global Climate Action Summit, September 12-14th. The summit convenes an international invitation list of “climate leaders” to, in their words:

“Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action. It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, frontline communities, community organizers, and grassroots organizations contest the perspective that real change has been made. While investors and green capitalists celebrate, frontline communities fight daily for clean air and water. In solidarity with and led by frontline communities, activists have protested the summit, in an attempt to hold policy makers accountable to those most affected by the fossil fuel industry.

Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice

One quarter of a million people worldwide, and well over 30,000 in San Francisco hit the streets during the Rise for Climate last Saturday, September 8th. With over 900 actions taking place simultaneously people worldwide demanded real climate action from their local leaders. FracTracker Alliance staff helped coordinate and participated in events nationwide.

In San Francisco, the march was led by members of the Indigenous community, making up the Indigenous Bloc, on the frontlines of the action. The day officially started with prayers from Indigenous leaders and a moment of silence for Indigenous Peoples that have been most harmed by the effects of climate change. Dozens of various other movements followed the Indigenous Bloc in a parade of support. FracTracker took the opportunity to document this monumental event, and photos from the march are shown below.

March Photos

For California and international “climate leaders” in attendance, Rise kicked off a long week of climate action culminating with the Global Action Climate Summit. The week is full of activities geared towards movement building, including the Solidarity to Solutions Summit (#sol2sol) by It Takes Roots; Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, hosted by Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network; and mass actions including a march and occupation of the Global Climate Action Summit!

SB100

To mark such a momentous movement, the Brown administration signed a new bill into law, SB100. The new law, authored by Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), pledges that all of California’s electricity will come from clean power sources by 2045. Brown said, “California is committed to doing whatever is necessary to meet the existential threat of climate change.” This is the most ambitious state climate policy in the U.S. The legislation barely passed the state Legislature after nearly two years of debate, with opponents arguing that it would lead to higher electric bills for all Californians.

Opposition from Eco-Activists

In opposition to the feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back feelings from delegates at the summit, frontline communities and activists respond that the SB100 legislation does nothing to stop harms to frontline communities caused by extraction and the supply side of the fossil fuel economy. The Against Climate Capitalism campaign is a coalition of Diablo Rising Tide teamed up with Idle No More SF Bay, the Ruckus Society, It Takes Roots, Indigenous Environmental Network and the Brown’s Last Chance. Members of the coalition have been outspoken proponents organizing in support of real climate leadership. The coalition is pushing for Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature to end the extraction of new fossil fuels in California. The green groups making up these larger coalition networks encompass a broad range research and advocacy groups, from international groups like Greenpeace to local grassroots movements from Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley. FracTracker Alliance is also a campaign member.

The goal of the campaign is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and supports a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to clean energy sources. A petition to pressure California Governor Jerry Brown to end fossil fuel extraction can be found on their website. The California legislature and the Brown administration has consistently failed to address the impacts of extraction in its own backyard. While frontline communities are suffering, the Brown administration continues to take the easy way out with future legislation such as SB100, which does nothing to address the environmental justice spector of actual oil drilling and production. In response to SB100, the campaign has issued response:

  • Governor Brown has consistently failed to address the supply side of oil and the drilling in California, which is an indispensable step to avoid the worst effects of climate destruction.
  • Some 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of at least one oil or gas well, and this includes hundreds of thousands of children. Many suffer illnesses from toxic exposure and cannot wait for action.
  • Brown’s failure to act on this issue is a massive moral failure from which no bill signing can distract. Despite his signing of an important and historical bill he did nothing to draft or support, Governor Brown can expect to be greeted with energetic and committed protest at the Global Climate Action summit this week.

With these poignant criticisms, it begs the question; how can Governor Jerry Brown continue to ignore the actual cause of climate change? Brown has passed legislation ensuring that everyday Californians will bear the costs for clean energy utilities, but has done nothing to hold accountable the actual culprits responsible for climate change, the oil and gas corporations extracting the 5.7 million barrels of oil per year from California soil.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Cover photo: Brown’s Las Change Billboard. Photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Behind in the Game Feature Image: Wind and farm. Creative Commons license.

Missouri’s clean energy is behind in the game, but at least they’re trying

Talking about fracking all day, every day, can be a bit of a downer. Here at FracTracker, we find hope in the advances of clean energy across the country and around the world. This time around, let’s see how Missouri’s clean energy sector is fairing. Long story short – while it seems their clean energy is a bit behind in the game, at least they are trying.

Background

The role of clean energy in Missouri’s economy is on the rise: Clean energy already supports 55,251 jobs, and the sector grew by 5.3 % over 2015-2016. This rate is over three times faster than overall jobs in Missouri. And in 2017, St. Louis approved a measure to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2035, making it one of the largest cities to do so. St. Louis’ decision also puts it squarely in line with efforts from other cities to take the lead on renewable energy, especially in the face of larger federal inaction.

Clean Energy Progress in Missouri

In collaboration with our partners at Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), FracTracker Alliance produced a series of maps investigating current clean energy businesses and sites where renewable energy is and can be generated. They aim to describe Missouri’s clean energy economy – and how much room it has to grow. Here is a sneak peak at some of these maps, below:

Map 1. Clean Energy Electric Generation

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Map 1, above, shows clean renewable energy generation in Missouri. Solar and wind are the most dominant forms of renewable energy in Missouri. Missouri’s clean energy generating capacity is highest in the northwest corner of the state, where several large wind-energy projects are located. The state has 6 wind farms in this region including the newly-announced 100 MW Hawthorne Wind Farm and 49 MW High Prairie Wind Farm. In total, Missouri produces 1,000 MW of wind energy from about 500 turbines. Solar power is more dominant across the rest of the state, especially with schools’ solar energy generation around Kansas City and St. Louis and solar farms throughout the rest of the state, including Pulaski, Macon, and Bates counties. All in all, about 702 megawatts of wind and solar capacity are installed currently, with another 458 megawatts currently proposed to be built.

Map 2. Clean Energy Generation Potential

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

However, much more potential remains to be tapped as shown in Map 2, above. This holds true across solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources – particularly in the southwest corner of the state, where solar energy potential is the highest.

Missouri has up to 275,000 MW of wind potential energy, and these maps of energy potential show that overall, approximately 75% of the state has above-average potential for solar power. This is an important statistic since coal fueled 81% of Missouri’s electricity in 2017; only two other states burned more in 2017. Also, the new addition of bidirectional natural gas flow to the Rockies Express Pipeline means stiffer competition for renewables from the natural gas market.

Map 3. Clean Energy Businesses

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

It looks like the transition to clean energy in Missouri is happening, but there is always work to be done (nerdy “energy” joke). According to the E2 Missouri Clean Jobs Report, there is a lot of room for the clean energy sector to develop.

The potential does exist for the sector to drive economic growth in the state by being a major contributor to job growth. According the Environmental Entrepreneur’s Midwest Advocate Micaela Preskill, the industry in Missouri is slated to grow another 4.5% through 2019. Recent hires in the sector show that the workforce is very ethnically diverse, with the percentage of minority new hires doubling the average state demographics. Also 14% of new hires are veterans. Map 3, above, displays over 400 businesses, including energy efficiency contractors and renewable energy installers, which cover all 34 state senate districts. Surveys indicate that 80 percent of businesses working in clean energy in Missouri employ fewer than 25 individuals, illustrating the importance of small businesses in the clean-energy sector.

With the new state policies that support the transition from fossil fuels and the growing clean energy economy, Missouri is on a path to becoming more sustainably focused. This is particularly important because of the state’s past and present reliance on coal, and the availability of natural gas. More investment of state and federal resources in the clean energy sector could provide the boost that benefits state’s health, environment and economy through new jobs and manufacturing.


By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator

Behind in the Game Feature Image: Wind and farm. Creative Commons license.

Divestment – A Necessary Step Towards a Climate Neutral Society

By Guest Author: Austin Sachs, Director and founder of Protect and Divest

In most major social movements where there is an imbalance power, divestment has been a necessary part for progress, whether in South Africa or now in the environmental movement against fossil fuels. Yet, too often in the environmental movement, divestment is only pursued when all other options have run their course and failed. If we want a climate neutral society for generations to come, we must pursue divestment alongside all other actions – and alongside this divestment, a reinvestment into a society we want to see.

So where does this all start? Divestment begins with each of us looking into our financial accounts and seeing who we are funding with them. And that is exactly what Protect and Divest did last year. We researched the funding of the Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley, Sabal Trail and Atlantic Sunrise pipelines to know where our money was going.

Along the entire East Coast, the TransCo Pipeline connects all these pipelines, but this infrastructure is also all connected by the same banks who are funding each and every single pipeline project. These banks range from the US banks of Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, US Bank, CitiBank, and Bank of America to the International banks of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Scotiabank and the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ. What we truly found is that no one bank is guilty alone – The entire financial industry is banking on the destruction of our beautiful home!

So where do we go if the banking industry is against a sustainable future? Well, luckily the entire industry is not against sustainability, and some heavily promote it. One of these options is Amalgamated Bank, who has promised to never invest depositor’s money into fossil fuels. Across this nation are countless credit unions doing the same for their members, who see money as a necessary tool of sustainability.

Protect and Divest has now launched our Divest the Commonwealth campaign to take our pledge one step further and move Virginia’s government funds out of fossil fuels, as well. Over $330 million dollars of the Virginia Retirement System is invested in fossil fuels. And of the stock of Duke Energy, one of the main builders of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, 10 state pensions plans hold over $785 million in it. If the banks are guilty, so are our government pensions and funds. And it’s not like there are no sustainable options. Blackrock, the FTSE Group, and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have come together to develop the FTSE ex-Fossil Fuels Index Series, a fossil fuel free index fund.

Divest the Commonwealth is working to build grassroots effort to move this money. We have started and are supporting city council resolutions from Harrisonburg, VA to Arlington, VA to Richmond, VA and are adding more weekly. Together, the cities and counties of Virginia will begin to bring about the future we want to see. Together, we will create a future we can be proud of.

Join us today and divest today! Every dollar, signature, and voice counts in making sure our money is where our mouth is. This is the way we create a world we want to live and one that we can tell our children about!


For more information visit: protectanddivest.weebly.com, or visit their Facebook page at: facebook.com/protectandivest.

Austin Sachs is the director and founder of Protect and Divest, created to build a market solution to climate change. Brought to the environmental movement by the Standing Rock crisis, Austin has worked endlessly to create a world we can all be proud within the economic and political models existing today!

Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Fracking in Dairy Country

A dairy farmer in Wisconsin reflects upon a new industry in town: frac sand mining, how it is perceived, and where the industry is headed.

By Paul Jereczek
Jereczek Homestead Dairy, Dodge, Wisconsin

In 4th grade, every Wisconsin student learns about their state. Topics pertaining to Wisconsin’s economy, geography, and history along with ethnicity and traditions are introduced and explored. State facts and anecdotes are discussed and naturally memorized. The one that stood out to me the most was how Wisconsin became known as the “Badger State.”

The origin of the badger nickname is from mining. The 4th grade story I remember was that miners were too busy to build houses so they moved into abandoned mineshafts and/or dug their own burrows. These men became known as “badgers.” The 4th grade version of myself thought that was real impressive. I pictured strong, hard working men fiercely toiling away in the earth like mythical creatures, helping make Wisconsin what it is today.

It made for a great story.

Back to Reality

The reality and documentation of the times suggests something different. Most miners lived in cabins or other structures above ground. There most certainly were a few outliers on the fringe of mining society who burrowed their own holes or lived in abandoned underground mines, but the adult version of myself has a hard time imagining that the term used to describe such men – badgers – was used as a compliment.

Either way, the result is the same. Word spread and eventually Wisconsin became known as the Badger State. The state may be known worldwide for its cheese and agriculture, but there was mining in Wisconsin long before the first dairy cow. While the state was earning its nickname, mining was a prominent reason for the early success of the region.

Dairy Farming in WI

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

Our farm is in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin – a driftless area – meaning the land was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The terrain is hilly and uneven, with tree-topped bluffs and hills overlooking valleys. The valleys, ranging from deep and narrow to wide and shallow, bump and flow into each other. Over the years, our farm has received its fair share of breaker rock, crushed rock, and gravel from the prevalent rock quarries. Sandstone deposits are huge and close to the surface. As a kid, there was a ledge in the cow pasture, where I hunted through chunks of sandstone for fossils.

As with everything else in the world, dairy farming continues to change. Most barns sit derelict and hold only memories of cows as they fade into the landscape. Small farms that clung to the valley walls have been sold to bigger operations, sit vacant, or have been built over. A lot of once prime farmland has been converted into houses with ridiculously large lawns. In 1990, Wisconsin had over 34,000 licensed dairy herds. Now there are just over 9,000.

We are the last dairy farm in our valley. Parallel to the trend, my childhood herd of 40 cows has turned to 200, which is about an average-sized herd. Margins are tighter than ever. Consistent help is hard to find. Milk prices are a terrible rollercoaster ride – it seems to take forever for them to go up, but when they fall, it’s fast and sickening. In the dairy business world, survival is a measure of success.

Frac Sand Mining Perceptions

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

The term frac sand is relatively new to me. I always assumed sand was sand and had given the word sand a negative connotation. Sand’s large particles don’t hold moisture or nutrients well, so sandy fields tend to perform poorly. But what if that sand has value for something else? What if there is a market for this sand much like a market for corn or soybeans?

Farmers tend to be resourceful. Every asset is scrutinized and employed to the fullest. Every acre is pushed. But what about what may lie beneath the soil? Sand mining has been going on in Wisconsin for well over a hundred years, but the recent surge in fracking has created an enormous demand for frac sand – and there are many people and companies set to take advantage of the boom.

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin's Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands' 2015 SEC 10Ks

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin’s Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands’ 2015 SEC 10Ks

Trempealeau County has zoning and planning ordinances to protect its industries and way of life. These aggressive ordinances allow more citizen input than other county’s ordinances. Public hearings are required, and orderly processes are enforced. With the economics involved with frac sand mining, citizens got educated very quickly. Much like abortion or immigration, frac sand has become a polarizing subject. Strong emotions built up by personal ideologies have pushed this topic to a boiling point. The for and against groups trade barbs without much convincing being done on either side. Frac sand mining editorials are common in local papers with those against appearing to be the most vocal and emotional.

New Player, New Approach

One such editorial detailed the approach a sand company took to obtaining a property. A local farmer had a sand mine company representative approach him with an oversized check written out to him for a sizable amount of money for his land. It was as though the sand rep was taking a page out of the Publishers Clearing House’s playbook. The farmer turned down the check. The sand rep left and returned a short time later with a significantly larger offer. The farmer was equally surprised and insulted. He found out later a few neighbors turned down similar proposals.

So what’s the deal with such a brazen approach? Intentions from this company may well have been good. Many people believed the sand mines were a win-win opportunity. Companies were selling hype – there was no way for anything but success. Extreme optimism. Sand mines were going to increase the tax base, fund schools and roads. Concerns were minimized, and residents were told what they wanted to hear. Such talk produced plenty of skeptics.

Environmental Costs of Frac Sand Mining

With both dairying and fracking, there is an environmental cost. Whether you milk 10, 100, or 1,000 cows – there are environmental pressures. With sand mining, the environmental effects are well documented. It is important, if not just practical, to measure these with the fiscal rewards. And where does this money go and who benefits the most? But, most importantly, who must deal with the consequences?

The risks of sand mines can be mitigated if proper regulations are taken seriously. With the extra scrutiny, a magnifying glass was placed over the sand mines, and what was found only proved the skeptics right. Trapping or pooling storm water seemed to be a learning process for sand mine companies; reported in 2012, every operating sand mine in Trempealeau County had storm water runoff violations. In 2014, over half of the sand mines in all of Wisconsin had violated environmental regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Add to this loss of surrounding property values, damage to roads, and a damper on quality of life – and you’ll create a substantial amount of public backlash.

Regulations Have Their Place

As was mentioned earlier, mining Is not new to the state. There are many multi-generational mining companies who have the experience, tradition, and financial network to abide by current standards and environmental regulations. Nobody likes to be told what to do. No industry is out there begging for more regulations. Often, the rules are in place to protect – not hinder – those that use environmentally safe and humane practices. Dairying has its own unique regulations – some are good, some not so much, and some downright stupid. Yet, overall it can be argued that these regulations protect the industry and the environment.

One heated topic in the dairy industry involves the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. It is illegal for any dairy in the state to sell raw milk. I have been drinking raw milk straight from the bulk tank since before I can remember. Our whole family did. Now, I still drink it and so do all my children from the age of a year and a half on up. None of us has ever had trouble with it. However, I am in complete agreement that the sale of raw milk should be illegal. All it takes is for one child to get terribly sick (which most certainly would happen) and for that kid lying on a hospital bed being blasted by every news network in the nation. These images create strong negative emotions that reverberate throughout society. The potential costs far outweigh the economic benefits from such a sale. Sure, some people are upset, but the greater good is maintained by taking away a risky practice.

The same principle works for mining. Rules and regulations get negative press and reaction, but who stands to lose the most from environmental catastrophes related to mining – the company in business 90-some years or the startup mining ventures trying to capture lightning in a bottle? Some companies have built years of trust and compatibility and support for their local communities. These are businesses that will remain after the sand rush has fizzled.

Booms and Busts, Ups and Downs

The frac sand industry is going through the same economic cycle as the dairy industry. The sand companies are getting better at what they do and increase their production capacity. Like milk, sand is a commodity. As the price of sand decreased, production increased to maintain profits. The dairy industry does the same thing, by expanding and improving efficiency to get more milk to catch those dollars slipping away. However, when the market is flush with milk or bombed with sand, they’re just doing more damage to themselves. This is a simplified take on the industry, as there are many global factors that come into play, but the overall pattern tends to remain. As the dairy industry can attest, this fluctuating cycle is not sustainable for all producers.

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Worse yet for the sand industry, this cycle has occurred in hyper speed. At first, just the small mines cut production. Outcompeted by larger operations, production at smaller mines was no longer profitable. Soon, the larger mines cut production due to the weakening demand. Many mines in the permit or early production phases never got started. Unlike the dairy industry, there was no rollercoaster effect because prices have yet to return to prior levels. The bubble, it seems, had popped.

With any kind of new mine developed comes the environmental impacts. Yet, I find the fervent negative reaction to such practices directly related to the end result. Fracking. Fracking isn’t magic. They’re not just mixing water with this sand and forcing oil and gas out of the ground. Harmful chemicals are being added to the mix. Worst yet, the quantity and potency of such chemicals is kept secret, closely guarded from the public. Harmful chemicals are being legally pumped into the ground. All the short-term gains will have long-term consequences. This is where I believe a significant backlash for new mines comes from. The end result. Can you imagine what the public’s perception of dairy farms would be if milk was mixed with chemicals and pumped into the ground?

The Future of Dairy Farming in Wisconsin

The 2016 presidential election has breathed some life into the frac sand industry. The new president promises to cut regulations interfering with business, and thus far has kept those promises. The environment will not be a detriment to his goals. Sand companies are returning with ads in the local papers, looking for qualified applicants and offering great salaries. In contrast, the dairy industry is stuck in a rollercoaster spiral. Milk prices have been too low for far too long. The dairy dispersal continues with some very good cows being sold and very good dairymen and women calling it quits. Naturally, some land will be sold. To what end remains to be seen. But it is a safe bet, the frac sand mining ride has not ended.

Starved Rock State Park by Michelle McCray

How Frac Sand Mining is Altering an Economy Dependent on Starved Rock State Park, IL

An Ottawa, IL resident’s letter to U.S. Silica regarding how the firm’s “frac” sand mines adjacent to Starved Rock State Park will alter the local economy.

Starved Rock State Park

As is so often the case, we find that those things we have taken most for granted are usually the things we miss most when they are gone. The list of what our nation has lost to industrial and commercial concerns couldn’t possibly be compiled in a single article. The short-sighted habits of economic progress have often led to long-term loss and ecologic disaster. That is why it took a man like Abraham Lincoln, a man of long-term vision and wisdom, to sign into existence our first national park, preserving for antiquity what surely would have been lost to our American penchant for development and overuse.

With that in mind, I have always found it amazing how the gears of our own local and state governments have continually chosen the economic path of least resistance and allowed the areas surrounding Starved Rock State Park to be ravaged and destroyed for what is, ultimately, minimal gain. I am no expert but I suspect it could be argued that a full 1/3 of LaSalle County’s economic engine is funded by the simple existence of Starved Rock State Park. Beyond the 2 million plus visitors to the park each year, it cannot be forgotten that nearly every municipality in LaSalle County has directly or indirectly benefited from the countless number of businesses that prosper from the magnetism of the park’s tranquil canyons.

Photos by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.

Preservation Not Development

As the 4-year battle with Mississippi Sand over development of the Ernat property has proved, there are many rational souls who truly acknowledge the importance of maintaining a healthy and productive park environment. With the recent sale of the Ernat property to U.S. Silica, we are again confronted with the prospect of irrational development of the eastern boundaries of Starved Rock State Park.

Given the gravity of these decisions, I would like to share a letter recently sent on behalf of many of those who have fought so hard and so long for preservation of that same eastern boundary. This letter was sent to Brian Shinn, CEO of U.S. Silica Holdings, INC. (SLCA) in Frederick, Maryland nearly a month ago, and we have yet to receive a response. In sharing this information on FracTracker’s website, I hope this letter will contribute to further discussion among our local representatives over a far more long-term vision of what LaSalle County wishes to be and what qualities, both environmental and economic, that it wishes to maintain and protect:

Letter to US Silica

Dear Mr. Shinn,

I am writing this letter on behalf of dozens of LaSalle County, Illinois residents who have, for the past several years, been intimately involved in the active pursuit of rational use and conservation of our local natural environment. As I am sure you are aware, the debate over use of the Ernat property as a functional sand mining operation has been a long and hard-fought battle. Years of litigation by the Sierra Club and other local environmental groups helped stall it’s development by Mississippi Sand, and have now led to the sale of the Ernat acreage to U.S. Silica. As irrational as the previous proposals were, the sale putting that acreage under your control has not lessened our concerns over the damaging use of that property as it relates to historic Highway 71 and the entire Starved Rock State Park area.

Obviously, sand mining operations have been a long-standing component of LaSalle County economics. Decades of mining under U.S. Silica supervision have not substantially reduced the quality of life for county residents or the natural environment as a whole. However, as can be specified by many local experts, the development and spoilage of the Ernat property will most certainly have longstanding and drastic impacts on both the ecology of Starved Rock State Park and the economic engine that it sustains. Starved Rock State Park attracts over 2 million visitors each year, with an estimated half million visitors using the Hwy. 71 entrance paralleling the Ernat farm as their main gateway into the park. The Ernat property’s river frontage has long been the tranquil eastern entry into the Illinois Canyon area, as well as an active nesting site for countless birds amidst bountiful wetlands and flat, open prairies. The Ernat property’s shared access to Horseshoe Creek has also made it essential to the entire Illinois Canyon ecosystem within the park. In short, any development of this property will most certainly have long-term negative impacts on both the economics and ecology of the Illinois River Basin.

In writing this letter, we are hoping that U.S. Silica, under your guidance, may consider the opportunity to preserve this indispensable parcel of land and examine ways in which U.S. Silica might make this land available as a gift or negotiated property to the state of Illinois. It would certainly be an important addition to the entire Starved Rock State Park area. I have included the signatures of many of our own local coalition. We hope you will consider the long-term impacts that this development would have to one of Illinois premier natural areas. Thank you.

Inspiring Action

I hope those who have signed this letter will be inspired to further action, and those who have not will reconsider their years of inaction. The natural heritage and local economies of our entire Illinois River Basin are depending on it.

Sincerely,

Paul Wheeler

Only when the last tree has died…
and the last river been poisoned…
and the last fish been caught…
will we realize we cannot eat money.

Sand Mining Photos

For additional photos from Illinois, explore our online photo album.


Mr. Wheeler grew up in Oak Lawn, IL and now lives with his wife and daughter in the Ottawa, IL area and is a para-educator.

Feature image by Michelle McCray of McCray Photography.