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Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Nonmetallic Mining Parcel Registration Program

How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus where the industry is migrating

What is nonmetallic mineral mining?

It was more than a year and half ago that anti-frac sand organizer – and movement matriarch – Pat Popple published a white paper by attorney Elizabeth Feil in her Frac Sand Sentinel newsletter. The paper outlined potential impacts of something the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calls the “Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Registration” (MNMDR) program.

The program, passed in 2000, is outlined in Wisconsin’s administrative code under Subchapter VI “Registration of Marketable Nonmetallic Mineral Deposits (NR 135.53-NR 135.64). This program allows landowners to register parcels that sit atop marketable nonmetallic mineral deposits, such as frac sand, according to a licensed professional geologist. The geologist uses “logs or records of drilling, boring, geophysical surveys, records of physical inspections of outcrops or equivalent scientific data” to outline the quality, extent, depth, accessibility, and current market value of the minerals.

If a mine operator is not the landowner, it must first coordinate registration with the landowner to:

… provide protection against present or future land uses, such as the erection of permanent structures, that would impede their development…to promote more orderly future development of identified nonmetallic mineral resources and minimize conflict among land uses.

Where is frac sand mining occurring in Wisconsin?


Photos by Ted Auch, Fractracker Alliance, and aerial support provided by LightHawk

Limitations of the registration program

The only requirement under this program is that the landowner “provide evidence that nonmetallic mining is a permitted or conditional use for the land under zoning in effect on the day in which notice is provided to the zoning authorities.” All registrations must be recorded in the county’s registrar of deeds 120 days before filing the registration. This process results in zoning authorities having a 60-day window to determine if they support or object to registrations in circuit courts.

Once counties are notified, they have no recourse for objection aside from proving that the deposit is not marketable or the parcel is not zoned for mining.

As Ms. Feil wrote, this program “preserves…[parcel] eligibility for nonmetallic mining in the future, even if a local governing body later passes new mining restrictions.” The former will have already been proven by the licensed geologist, and the latter is highly unlikely given lax or non-existent zoning in rural Wisconsin, where many land parcels are outside incorporated townships. Any parcel registered on this program remains in the program for a 10 year period and may be automatically re-registered under the initial geological assessment for another 10 year term “at least 10 days and no more than one year before registration expires.”

After this 20-year period, parcels start from scratch with respect to the registration process.

Initial inquiry and map methodology

As part of her white paper, Ms. Feil noted that in a quick check of her home county’s register of deeds, she found six nonmetallic mineral deposit registrations since 2000 in Trempealeau County and nine in neighboring Chippewa County. As a result of Ms. Feil’s initial inquiry, we decided it would be worth conducting a sweeping search for all nonmetallic parcel registrations in the nine most heavily frac sand-mined Wisconsin counties: Trempealeau, Barron, Crawford, Chippewa, Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Dunn, and Eau Claire.

“Wisconsin Nonmetallic Mineral Deposit Parcel Registrations and Likely Mine Parcels” Map

We were fortunate enough to receive funding from the Save The Hills Alliance (STHA) to conduct this research. We received “boots on the ground” assistance from the likes of Ms. Feil, Ms. Popple, and several other volunteers for acquiring hard copies of registrations as of the summer of 2018.

Our goal was to construct a map that would provide a predictive and dynamic tool for residents, activists, non-profits, researchers, local governments, and journalists to understand the future scale and scope of frac sand mining across West Central Wisconsin. We hope this will inspire a network of citizen scientists and mapping tools that can serve as a model for analogous efforts in Illinois, Minnesota, and Southeastern Michigan.

In addition to identifying parcels falling under Wisconsin DNR’s MNMDR registration program, we also used Wisconsin’s State Cartographer’s Office and Land Information Program “V4 Statewide Parcel Data” to extract all parcels:

  1. Currently owned by active or historically relevant frac sand mine operators and their subsidiaries,
  2. Owned by families or entities that have allowed for mining to occur on their property and/or have registered parcels under the MNMDR program, and,
  3. All cranberry production parcels in Wisconsin frac sand counties – namely Monroe, Jackson, Clark, Wood, and Eau Claire, with Monroe, Jackson, and Wood the state’s top producing counties by acreage.

The latter were included in the map because Wisconsin DNR identified the importance of cranberry bogs in their Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin January 2012 report. The report defined the “Cranberry Exemption” as follows:

Some of the counties in central Wisconsin that are seeing an increase in frac sand mining are also home to much of the state’s cranberry farming. Mining sand is a routine practice in the process of raising cranberries. Growers use sand in the cranberry beds to provide adequate drainage for the roots of the cranberry plants. The sand prevents root rot and fosters plant growth. Chapter 94.26, Wis. Stats, was established in 1867 and exempts cranberry growers from much of the laws applying to waters of the state under Chapter 30, Wis. Stats. With this exemption in place cranberry growers can, in theory, mine sand wherever and however they desire for use in cranberry production. Some cranberry growers are taking advantage of the high demand for sand and are selling their sand on the frac sand market (emphasis added). However, the Department has recently determined that the exemption in Ch. 94.26, Wis. Stats., from portions of Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., for cranberry culture is not applicable to non-metallic mining sites where a NR 216, W is. Adm. Code, stormwater permit is required. For those non-metallic mining operations where the material is sold and hauled off site, Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats., jurisdiction will be applied.

Finally, the last data layer we’ve included in this map speaks to the enormous volumes of subsurface water that the industrial sand mining industry has consumed since 2010. This layer includes monthly and annual water volume withdrawals by way of 137 industrial sand mine (i.e., IN 65) high capacity wells (Our thanks to Wisconsin DNR Water Supply Specialist – Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater’s Bob Smail for helping us to compile this data.)

We have coupled that data to annual tonnages in order to quantify gallons per ton ratios for several mines across several years.

Results

Below is the completed map of current and potential frac sand mines in West Central Wisconsin, as well as high capacity wells. Click on the features of the map for more details.

View Map Full Screen| How FracTracker maps work 

We identified 4,049 nonmetallic parcel registration and existing sand mine operator parcels totaling 113,985 acres or 178 square miles spread across 14 counties in West Central Wisconsin (Table 1). The largest parcel sizes were U.S. Silica’s 398-acre parcel in Sparta, Monroe County and Badger Mining’s 330-acre parcel in St. Marie, Green Lake County. The average parcel is a mere 28 acres.

To put these figures in perspective, back in 2013 we quantified the full extent of land-use change associated with frac sand mining in this same region and found that the 75 active mines at the time occupied a total of 5,859 acres and averaged roughly 75 acres in size. This means that if current parcel ownership and nonmetallic parcel registrations run their course, the impact of frac sand mining from a land-use perspective could potentially increase by 1,900%!

This is an astounding development and would alter large chunks of West Central Wisconsin’s working landscape, dairy industry, and “Badger State” mentality forever.

Table 1. Nonmetallic or operator-owned frac sand parcels and their total and average acreage in 14 West Central Wisconsin counties

County Number of Parcels Total Acreage Average Parcel Acreage
Barron 267 8,737 33
Buffalo 211 5,902 28
Burnett 4 140 35
Chippewa 580 15,585 27
Clark 74 2,391 32
Dunn 73 2,245 31
Eau Claire 151 4,101 27
Green Lake 74 2,648 36
Jackson 1,128 36,152 32
Monroe 459 11,185 24
Pierce 168 3,415 20
Rusk 2 64 32
Trempealeau 787 19,375 25
Wood 71 2,044 29

As for the “Cranberry Exemption” identified by Wisconsin DNR, we identified an additional 3,090 cranberry operator or family-owned parcels totaling 98,217 acres or 153 square miles – nearly equal to the acreage identified above. Figure 1 shows the extent of cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in Monroe, Wood, and Jackson Counties. The two largest parcels in this inquiry were the 275-acre parcel owned by Fairview Cranberry in Monroe County and a 231 acre-parcel owned by Ocean Spray in Wood County. Interestingly, the former is already home to a sizeable (i.e., 266 acres) frac sand mine operated by Smart Sand pictured and mapped in Figure 2.

Figure 1. Cranberry bog parcels and frac sand mines in the Wisconsin counties of Monroe, Jackson, and Wood

Figure 2. Current and potential extent of Smart Sand’s Fairview Cranberry frac sand mine, Tomah, Monroe County, Wisconsin

In total, the potential for mine expansion in West Central Wisconsin could consume an additional 212,202 acres or 331 square miles. Characterized by dairy farms, and also known as The Driftless Area, this region is where Aldo Leopold penned his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac. To give a sense of scale to these numbers, it is worth noting that this type of acreage would be like clearing an area the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolis.

Project limitations and emerging concerns

After completing this project, Liz Feil, Pat Popple, and I got on the phone to discuss what we perceived to be its limitations, as well as their concerns with the process and the implications of the MNMDR program, which are listed below:

1. Both Liz and Pat found that when they visited certain counties to inquire as to parcel registrations, most of the registrars of deeds had very little, if any, idea as to what they were talking about, which begged the questions:

  • Why does Wisconsin not have a uniform protocol and archival process for such registrations?
  • What are the implications of this program with respect to county and township taxable lands, future zoning, and/or master planning?
  • What does this program mean for surface and mineral rights ownership in Wisconsin, a state where these two are coupled or decoupled on a parcel by parcel basis?

2. Liz and Pat felt they ended up teaching county registrars more about this registration process during this exercise than they ended up learning themselves.

3. Given the potential ramifications of these types of programs, such registrations should be centrally archived rather than archived at disparate sites across the state. Registrations should be explicitly bolted onto efforts like the aforementioned statewide V4 Statewide Parcel Data, given the fact that the MNMDR parcels are registered for 10 years.

The footprint of frac sand mining at any one point is just a glimpse into how vast its influence could be in the future. Mapping parcel ownership like we’ve done gives people a more realistic sense for the scale and scope of mining in the future and is a more realistic way to analyze the costs/benefits of such an industry. This type of mapping exercise would have greatly benefited those that live in the coal fields of Appalachia and the Powder River Basin as they began to debate and regulate mining, rather than the way they were presented with proposals as smaller discrete operations.

This piecemeal process belies the environmental and social impact of any industrial process, which frac sand mining very much is.

Industrial sand mining and high capacity wells

There is a growing concern, based on a thorough analysis of the data, that the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) industry’s unquenchable thirst for freshwater is growing at an unsustainable rate. Here at FracTracker, we have been quantifying the exponential increase in HVHF water use, namely in Ohio’s Muskingum River Watershed and northern West Virginia, for more than five years now. More recently, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh has conducted a thorough national analysis of this trend.

While the trends in HVHF water use and waste production are disturbing, such analysis leaves out the water industry uses to mine and process frac sand, or “proppant” in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. Failure to incorporate such values in an analysis of HVHF’s impact on freshwater, both surface and subsurface, grossly underestimates the industry’s impact on watersheds and competing water uses.

Figure 3 shows monthly and cumulative water demand of frac sand mining. The first thing to point out is the marked seasonal disparities in water withdrawals due to the fact that many of Wisconsin’s frac sand mines go dormant during the winter and ramp up as soon as the ground thaws. The most important result of this work is that we finally have a sense for the total volumes of water permanently altered by the frac sand mining industry:

An astounding 30 billion gallons of water were used between January 2010 and December 2017

This figure is equivalent to the annual demand of ~72,500 US residents (based on an assumption of 418,184 gallons per year). This figure is also equivalent to between 2,179 and 3,051 HVHF wells in Ohio/West Virginia.

Figure 3. Cumulative and monthly water demand by Wisconsin’s frac sand mine Hi-Cap wells, January 2010-December 2017

A graph of water use trends for frac sand mining which shows significant increase in monthly and cumulative water consumptionFigure 4 shows water use by operator. The worst actors with respect to water withdrawals over this period were two wells serving Hi-Crush’s active Wyeville mine that in total used 9.6 billion gallons of subsurface water. Covia Holdings, formerly Unimin and Fairmount Santrol, utilized 5.8 billion gallons in processing an undisclosed amount of frac sand at their Tunnel City mine. Covia’s neighboring mine in Oakdale, owned by Wisconsin White Sand and Smart Sand, used more than 2.5 billion gallons during this period spread across six high-capacity wells.

Figure 4. Total water usage by operator, January 2010-December 2017

Water Use Graph by Frac Sand Operator, 2010-2017These tremendous water volumes prompted us to ask whether we could determine the amount of water needed to mine a typical ton of Wisconsin frac sand. There are numerous issues with data quality and quantity at the individual mine level and those issues stretch from the USGS all the way down to individual townships. However, some townships do collect tonnage records and/or “Fees Tied to Production” from mine operators which allow us to quantify productivity. Using this scant data and the above water volume data we were able to determine “gallons to tons of sand mined” ratios for the years of 2013, 2014, 2015, and/or 2017 for four mines and those ratios range between 30-39 to as much as 521 gallons of water per ton of sand (Table 2).

Table 2. Gallons of water per ton of sand mined for four Wisconsin frac sand mines, 2013-2017

 

Owner

 

Property

 

City

 

County

Gallon Per Ton
2013 2014 2015 2017
Wisconsin Industrial Sand Maiden Rock Facility Maiden Rock Pierce 98 90 66
Thompson, Terry Thompson Hills Mine Chetek Barron 30 521
Lagesse, Samuel NA Bloomer Chippewa 39 48
CSP Rice Lake Mine Rice Lake Barron 104

Conclusions

For far too long we’ve been monitoring frac sand mining retrospectively or in the present tense. We’ve had very little data available to allow for prospective planning or to model the impact of this industry and its role in the Hydraulic Fracturing Industrial Complex writ large. Given what we are learning about the fracking industry’s insatiable appetite for water and sand, it is imperative that we understand where frac sand mining will occur if this appetite continues to grow (as we expect it may, given the current political environment at the state and federal level).

Three examples of this growing demand can be found in our work across the Great Lakes:

1) With the new age of what the HVHF industry is calling “Super Laterals”, between 2010 and 2017 we saw average proppant demand jump nearly six-fold to roughly 25-30 thousand tons per lateral.

2) In Le Sueur County, MN Covia – which is a recent merger of silica mining giants Unimin and Fairmount Santrol – has plans and/or parcel ownership speaking to the potential for an 11-fold increase in their mining operations, which would increase acreage from 560 to 6,500 acres (if sand demand increases at its current clip) (Figures 5 and 6).

 

Figure 5. Unimin’s current 560-acre frac sand mine parcel in Kasota, Le Sueur County

 

Figure 6. The potential 6,500 extent of Unimin mining by way of parcel ownership search

 

3) As we’ve previously highlighted, the potential outside Detroit, Michigan for US Silica to expand its current frac sand mining operations would displace hundreds of families. The planned expansion would grow their mine from its current 650-acre footprint to nearly 1,400 acres in the town of South Rockwood, Monroe County (Figure 7).

 

Figure 7. US Silica’s current (642 acres) and potential (1,341 acres) frac sand mine footprint in Monroe County, Michigan.

Given our experience mapping and quantifying the current and future impact of frac sand mining in states with limited mining activity, we felt it was critical that we apply this methodology to the state where industry is mining a preponderance of frac sand. However, this analysis was rendered a bit more complicated by the presence of the MNMDR program and Wisconsin DNR’s “Cranberry Exemption.” Adding to the challenge is the fact that many in Wisconsin’s frac sand communities demanded that we address the tremendous volumes of water being used by the industry and work to incorporate such data into any resulting map.

We hope that this map allows Wisconsin residents to act in a more offensive and prospective way in voicing their concerns, or simply to become better informed on how sand mining has impacted other communities, will influence them, and what the landscape could look like in the future.

It is critical that we see sand mining not as discrete mines with discrete water demands but rather as a continuum, or better yet an ecosystem, that could potentially swallow large up sizeable chunks of Western Wisconsin.


By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

P.S. We’ll continue to add MNMDR registered parcels periodically. As parcels change ownership, we will be sure to update both the cranberry bog and industry owned parcel inventory in the comings months and years.

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
Bird’s eye view of a sand mine in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch 2013.

Quick Sand: Frack Sand Mining in Wisconsin

Each silica sand mine displaces 871 acres of wetlands and more than 12 square miles of forests and agriculture land in Wisconsin to provide the shale gas industry with fracking proppant.

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Silica sand is used by the oil and gas industry as a way to prop open the fractures made during fracking – and is also referred to as a proppant. The industry’s demand for silica sand is steadily increasing (i.e., 4-5K tons per shale lateral, +86 tons per lateral per quarter), directly affecting the Great Lakes, their ecosystems, and land use. Silica sand is often found in Wisconsin and Michigan, which have felt the effects of increased sand mining demands through altered landscapes, impacted ecosystem productivity, and altering watershed resilience; these impacts will only continue to increase as the demand for silica sand increases.

To better understand frack sand mining’s current and potential effects, FracTracker’s Ted Auch and intern Elliott Kurtz, with generous support from the Save The Hills Alliance, explored mining and land use changes data in West Central Wisconsin (WCW). In their research paper, Auch and Kurtz show the current and future environmental impacts of increased sand mining in WCW in order to supply the oil and gas industry with sand. Not only does this research illustrate what is at risk in the WCW landscape, it also showcases what sand mining has already done to the region.

Key Frack Sand Mining Findings

Land alterations due to silica sand mining in WI

Sixteen percent, or 2,396 square miles, of the West Central Wisconsin (WCW) is made up of wetlands or open waters. These and the other existing WCW landscapes are unquestionably profitable. The forests buffer climate change impacts – to date accumulating between 4.8-9.8 billion tons of CO2 assuming they are 65-85 years old – and have a current stumpage value of $253-936 million.

The 25 producing silica mines in this region occupy 12 square miles of WCW and have already displaced:

  • 3 mi2 of forests
  • 7 mi2 of agricultural land-cover
  • 1.36 mi2 of wetlands (equal to 11% of all mined lands)
    Formerly, these wetlands were one of three types:

    • 18% (158 acres) forested wetlands
    • 41% (353 acres) lowland shrub wetlands, and
    • 41% (361 acres) emergent/wet meadows
Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Breakdown of the current landscape types near these expanding mines, based on an analysis of satellite imagery

Why Wisconsin?

There are more than 125 silica sand mines throughout WCW, a stretch of ~16,000 square miles. Previously, the mining industry focused their efforts in Oklahoma and Texas’s Riley, Hickory/Brady, and Old Creek formations, where the land is not as agriculturally or ecologically productive as WCW. Now, more and more mines are being proposed and built in the WCW region. We wanted to determine what this change would mean for such an ecosystem diverse area of Wisconsin – many of which are considered “globally imperiled” or “globally rare” including oak savanna, dry prairies, southern dry-mesic forests, pine barrens, moist cliffs and oak openings.

The St. Peter Sandstone – along with the early Devonian and much smaller Sylvania Sandstone in Southeastern Michigan – is the primary target of the silica sand industry. Carbon-rich grassland soils cover 36% of the St. Peter, where they aid the ecosystem by capturing and sorting 20.9 tons of CO2 per year, as well as purifying precipitation inputs. This ecosystem, amongst many others around sand mining activities, will be dramatically altered if silica sand mining continues at its increasing rate. We will see CO2 capturing levels drop from 20.9 tons to 10.6 tons per acre per year if the highly productive temperate forests are not reassembled and reclaimed to their original acreage, as well as a significant loss (75%) in agricultural productivity on sites that are not reclaimed properly.

Out-of-state mining companies are settling into Wisconsin and displacing the land at a very high rate. As the president of Iowa’s Allamakee County Protectors Ric Zarwell told us by email “Frac sand mining companies do not come from the area where I live.  So efforts to destroy landscapes for frac sand are going to involve Neighbors Opposing Invaders.”

A high demand in silica sand from the shale gas industry will continue to drive this influx of mining companies into WI, providing a potentially collapsed ecosystem in the future. Factors at play include additional – and often much larger – mines under consideration, the average shale gas lateral grows by > 50 feet per quarter, and silica sand usage will grow from 5,500 tons to > 8,000 tons per lateral (i.e., 85 tons per quarter per lateral). Auch and Kurtz’s research paper describes in detail where how much silica sand might be needed in the future, as well as a detailed set of maps depicting land cover and usage in WI.

NY State Hydraulic Fracturing Bans Relative to Population

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator

According to industry projections, one of the next big frontiers for Marcellus shale-gas development may be in the New York State Counties bordering northern Pennsylvania. However, after more than four years of discussion, two versions of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), and hundreds of thousands of citizen and professional comments on the SGEIS and regulatory framework, the future for hydrofracturing for natural gas in New York  is still highly contested–both in statewide political and locally-based fora.

This map shows the municipalities, as of July 2013, that have enacted hydrofracking prohibitions, represented relative to the population size of those towns. New York State municipalities began invoking home rule laws as early as 2010 to prohibit high volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Primarily implementing zoning tools, these towns found that while they could not regulate against drilling, outright, they could determine appropriate land uses within the town or village boundaries. In this map, bans are shown as red circles, moratoria are shown as lavender, and movements for bans or moratoria are shown in yellow.

As of June 2013, 61 municipalities have passed permanent bans against HVHF, and 111 municipalities have enacted temporary moratoria while they explore the issue more fully, or draft ban legislation.

Within the area of New York State that overlies the Utica Shale, the major population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Union, Utica, and Albany have all enacted bans or moratoria. This unprecedented movement is the reaction to concerns of residents who do not desire large-scale energy industrialization, and who have been frustrated with the pace at which the New York State government has been finalizing their generic environmental impact statement, health review, and gas extraction regulations. Large urban centers account for more than 13% of the population in the area over the shale-gas formation that have enacted local prohibitions. These municipalities, along with more than 150 more across the region, (accounting for more than 28% of the region’s total population) have taken precautions to protect the air, water, food, and landscape from the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing that other communities in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and beyond, have experienced.  An additional 88 towns (representing over 8% of the population over the Utica Shale formation) have grassroots movements that are spearheading discussions on the need and desire for bans or moratoria. On a town-by-town basis, population-dense centers, as well as rural towns and villages, are exercising democracy to determine whether or not they will risk living with this form of industrial development.

Land-Use Change, the Utica Shale, and the Loss of Ecosystem Services

By Ted Auch, PhD – Ohio Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In Ohio, Utica Well pads range in size from 5-15 acres. (Estimates for pipeline and retention ponds are unavailable.) That figure gives us the chance to estimate how hydraulic fracturing influenced changes to land-use, ecosystem services, plant productivity, and soil carbon loss.

Working with Caleb Gallemore and his Ohio State University GIS class, we created a data set that estimated the percent cover for each well pad prior to drilling using the USGS and Department of Interior’s 2006 National Land Cover Database (NLCD, 2006) [1].

Figure 1. Ohio’s original vegetation cover and Utica Well permits as of April 30th, 2013

Figure 1. Ohio’s original vegetation cover and Utica Well permits as of April 30, 2013

Accordingly, the state was and is dominated by:

  • mixed oak (from 12,038 mi2 pre-settlement to 7,911 mi2 today) to the east and
  • maple-beech-birch (from 13,917 mi2 pre-settlement to 2,521 mi2 today) to the west stretching into the southeast and northwest corner of Ohio.

During pre-settlement times additional dominant forest types included:

Since industrialization:

  • The faster growing elm-ash-cottonwood has arisen as a sub-dominant forest type currently comprising 1,237 mi2.
  • Additional sub-dominant forest types comprising 100-140 mi2 of Ohio’s land area include aspen-birch (134 mi2), white-red-jack pine (124 mi2), and loblolly-shortleaf pine (108 mi2).

Our results suggest the average amount of deciduous forest [2] disturbed – as a percent of total well pad area – by well pad establishment is 9.8 ± 5.5% per well pad with a range of 4.7% in Stark and Holmes Counties and a high of 24% in Monroe County (Figure 2). With respect to pasture and crop displacement the average is 11.7 and 10.7% per well pad, respectively, with significantly higher between-county variability for crop cover (±5.5% Vs ±3.6%).

Figure 2. Percent Cover across Ohio’s 269 Utica Well Pads assuming an average area of 7.75 acres and the National Land Cover Database 2006 (NLCD 2006) as a proxy for previous land-use.

Figure 2. Percent Cover across Ohio’s 269 Utica Well Pads assuming an average area of 7.75 acres and the National Land Cover Database 2006 (NLCD 2006) as a proxy for previous land-use. – Click to enlarge

Converting this data into ecosystem services requires certain assumptions about plant growth, soil organic matter content, and soil compaction utilizing Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil data to model the latter two and established peer-reviewed estimates for plant pattern and process (Follett, Kimble, & Lal, 2000; Lobell et al., 2002; Valentine et al., 2012). The basics of this analysis – assuming subsurface soils are 25% more compact and contain 45% less organic matter than the surface 12-13 inches (Needelman et al., 1999) – demonstrated that well pad establishment has displaced approximately 28,205 tons of surface and 78,348 tons of subsurface soil carbon [3] for a total of 106,554 tons of carbon equivalent to 389,986 tons of CO2.

Additionally, the displacement and/or removal of vegetation – assuming the average Ohio forest is 40-80 years old [4] – has resulted in the annual loss of 1,050, 6,516, and 9,461 tons of crop, pasture, and forest carbon production, respectively. This is equal to 17,027 tons of carbon or 62,319 tons of CO2, which when added to the aforementioned soil loss is equivalent to the CO2 footprint of 25,198 Ohioans [5].

Over the life of these three ecosystem types, well pad establishment displaces 1,021,619 tons of carbon. This equates to 3.74 million tons of CO2 or 230,034 Ohioans, which is roughly 9,000 less people than reside in Akron and Warren combined. Another way way to frame this figure is that it would be equivalent to the eightieth largest US city between Henderson, NV and Scottsdale, AZ.

At CO2’s current valuation this Ohio Utica well pad “carbon displacement” is roughly $18.71 million. However, if we assume this is at the lower end of reasonable CO2 estimates and that a range of $10-75 dollars is more indicative of carbon’s price, then we estimate the value of well pad displaced carbon is more like $41.29-309.68 million.

The true value of Utica well pad carbon displacement is somewhere in this range and entirely dependent on your belief in the feasibility of valuing CO2 emissions. However, these estimates do point to some of the externalities associated with Utica Shale development currently ignored by industry lobbyists and political advocates. There is far more work to be done as it relates to understanding well pads’ influence on ecosystem services, crop productivity, and local hydrology; this is simply an attempt to begin quantifying such effects.


References

Follett, R F, Kimble, J M, & Lal, R. (2000). The Potential of U.S. Grazing Lands to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press LLC.

Fry, J, Xian, G, Jin, S, Dewitz, J, Homer, C, Yang, L, . . . Wickham, J. (2011). Completion of the 2006 National Land Cover Database for the Conterminous United States. PE&RS, 77(9), 858-864.

Lobell, D B, Hicke, J A, Asner, G P, Field, C B, Tucker, C J, & Los, S O. (2002). Satellite estimates of productivity and light use efficiency in United States agriculture, 1982-98. Global Change Biology, 8(8), 722-735.

Needelman, B A, Wander, M M, Bollero, G A, Boast, C W, Sims, G K, & Bullock, D G. (1999). Interaction of Tillage and Soil Texture Biologically Active Soil Organic Matter in Illinois. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 63(5), 1326-1334.

Valentine, J, Clifton-Brown, J, Hastings, A, Robson, P, Allison, G, & Smith, P. (2012). Food vs. Fuel: The use of land for lignocellulosic next generation energy crops to minimize competition with primary food production. Global Change Biology Bioenergy, 4(1), 1-19.


Footnotes

[1] The NLCD estimates land cover using sixteen classes at a 98 foot spatial resolution applied to 2006 Landsat satellite data or 4-5 years prior to the first Ohio Utica permit in September, 2010 (Fry et al., 2011)

[2] Primary tree species include red and sugar maple, red and white oak, white ash, black cherry, American beech, hickory, and tulip poplar according to the most recent USFS Forest Inventory Analysis “Ohio Forests 2006”.

[3] Along with roughly 6,536 tons of soil nitrogen assuming an Ohio soil Carbon-To-Nitrogen ratio of 14.6.

[4] Utilizing the USFS’s Forest Inventory and Analysis EVALIDator Version 1.5.1.04 tool we determined that 62% of Ohio’s oak-hickory, maple-beech-birch, elm-ash-cottonwood, and oak-pine forest types, which account for 94% of the state’s forest area, are 40-80 years old.

[5] Assuming 17.3-18.6 tons of CO2 per capita based on Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center as cited by the World Bank.

Texas Lease and Pooling Data Available

In the wacky world of oil and gas data, you never know what unexpected treasures there are to be found. For that matter, you never know what standard data will remain out of reach. Such is the story of the new Texas Lease and Pooling Agreements entry to FracMapper.


Texas Lease and Pooling Agreements. This map is zoomable and you can click on the map icons for more information. For full access to the FracMapper controls, click the expanding arrows icon in the top right corner.

In many states, even though lease data is technically publicly available, in practice, it is nearly impossible to obtain in a systematic fashion. Imagine searching through stacks of property files at county office buildings to see if there happens to be any mineral rights attached to a plot of land; this is the reason that lease data is so often not available in the way that oil and gas well data usually is. But in Texas, it’s easy: just go the the Texas General Land Office (GLO) website and download it. Not only that, but they have pooling agreement mapping data freely available as well.

On the other hand, the oil and gas well data is not up to the transparency and accessibility standards of other states. Although the agency that regulates that data, the Railroad Commission (RRC) of Texas, has a bevy of search tools available, notably missing from the results are the location data. As it turns out, the Lone Star State actually charges for that data, and a pretty penny too.  Luckily, the RRC does provide a one county sample of the sort of data that one might get if they spent thousands of dollars on their data. This has allowed FracTracker to determine that the data purchase is decidedly not worthwhile. The oil and gas wells don’t even have complete well API numbers, let alone spud or permit issue dates.

Hopefully someday, the RRC will follow the data transparency model of the GLO, and not the other way around. A state funded by such a robust severance tax ought to be able to figure out a way to get this data out there for free.

NY Local Land Use Laws Upheld in Challenges to Municipal Drilling Prohibitions

Karen Edelstein, NYS FracTracker Liaison

Click to enlarge map

New York State has had a long history of natural gas drilling. The earliest gas wells were drilled in Fredonia, NY in 1825, and by 1857, engineers had discovered that if they fractured rock layers at the base of a gas well, the process stimulated greater flow of gas from the rock strata. Natural gas has been a common source of fuel for both heat and lighting for many years, and many rural properties in central and western New York have been leased and drilled. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists nearly 40,000 wells in their database. While slightly fewer than half of those wells are now plugged and abandoned, many are still in production. Virtually all of these wells are vertical, conventionally drilled gas wells.

In around 2005, a new wave of gas leasing began in New York State. Companies conducted seismic testing throughout the rural countryside, with “thumper trucks” moving in slow formations along town roads, and helicopters canvassing the region dropping their cargoes of cables that were unrolled across fields and forests to aid in further assessment. Simultaneously, “landsmen”—hired by the gas industries—were going door-to-door, offering leasing deals to homeowners. Promoting a rationale of “energy independence” and appealing signing bonuses, the landsmen were successful in convincing tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers to lease their land for natural gas. With a history of conventional, vertical gas drilling in the area, many landowners did not consider asking an attorney to review the new leases. Furthermore, no mention was made of the recently-developed process of gas extraction: high volume, slickwater, horizontal hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), a technique that industry would want to use for natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale.

As awareness about the new extraction process, combining high volume, chemically-enhanced, hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, began to spread among New York State communities, local decision-makers and citizen groups became concerned about risks inherent to the method. Troubling stories of polluted air and drinking water, impacts to human- and livestock health, and economic and social woes connected with rapid industrialization of rural communities spread from Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming, where HVHF was well underway.

Yet in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) houses divisions that potentially work at cross-purposes with each other — one making laws that encourage mineral extraction, and the other that is supposed to oversee protection of land and water resources. Concerned citizens also became aware that changes to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, promulgated during the recent Bush administration, now exempted oil and gas drilling. Would there be any legal means of standing up against potentially disastrous industrialization of our rural landscape?

Investigative journalists including Ian Urbina (New York Times) and Abram Lustgarten (ProPublica) published hard-hitting articles that time and again confirmed that New York had a lot to be concerned about if wide-spread HVHF were to come to our state. Scientists stepped forward with additional information that the DEC had not supplied in their draft environmental impact statements. Citizen committees formed to discuss both the science and the social implications of allowing wide-spread gas drilling in our communities.

New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation laws prevent local governments from regulating oil and gas development. However, home rule rights are also accorded to local governments. While, by law, municipalities cannot regulate industry, many attorneys are now arguing that towns can, on behalf of the health and well-being of their constituents, determine land use laws through zoning and other ordinances. Some of these land use laws may result in effectively banning activities such as HVHF in those towns.

The towns of Dryden (in Tompkins County, NY), and Middlefield (in Otsego County, NY) were two of more than twenty towns that put laws in place in the past year that banned HVHF. In the fall of 2011, Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corporation sued the Town of Dryden, saying that state laws allowing for drilling pre-empted municipal laws. On February 21, 2012, State Supreme Court Judge Rumsey upheld Dryden’s right to set their own zoning regulations against HVHF stating, “Nowhere in legislative history provided to the court is there any suggestion that the Legislature intended — as argued by Anschutz — to encourage the maximum ultimate recovery of oil and gas regardless of other considerations, or to preempt local zoning authority.”

In Otsego County, the situation was slightly different. A local dairy farmer, who had leased her land sued the Town of Middlefield, asserting that the Town’s ban prevented her from enjoying the full value of her property. Just a week following the Dryden decision, a different judge ruled in the Middlefield case, and decided in favor of the town. Because drilling had not yet begun, the situation could not be considered a “takings.” The judge felt that while New York State can dictate (through regulations) how any industry operates, it is up to the town to decide where those industrial activities may take place.

Until the cases are heard in the Court of Appeals, these decisions stand as the opinion of the courts, but it is possible that there will be additional suits in the lower courts before a final decision is reached that will set the standard statewide. Nonetheless, the Dryden and Middlefield decisions clearly show that the lower courts support local community rights.

Although lawsuits are costly, the towns’ legal efforts have been supplemented by organizations that support the bans, and their costs have been reduced through the generous support of ordinary people. The prospect of additional suits has not deterred New York State’s municipalities from passing bans and moratoria preventing HVHF. To date, 21 towns have established bans, and more than 50 towns have enacted moratoria. Nearly 60 additional towns are in the process of developing bans or moratoria. See below for a map-in-progress within Data.FracTracker.org of the areas where bans and moratoria are in place or in development:

Progress of New York State towns enacting home rule to control impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas: