Introducing FracTracker’s newest board member: Christine Yellowthunder
Meet Christine Yellowthunder, FracTracker’s newest board member. Christine is from Wisconsin, grows trees, and fights frac sand mining.
Meet Christine Yellowthunder, FracTracker’s newest board member. Christine is from Wisconsin, grows trees, and fights frac sand mining.
FracTracker and Public Lab, with support from Save the Hills Alliance, produced “Undermined,” an audio story featuring interviews with three residents impacted by the Hi-Crush Mine in Augusta, Wisconsin.
By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development
The oil and gas industry continues to use rhetoric focusing on national security and energy independence in order to advocate for legislation to criminalize climate activists. Backlash against protestors and environmental stewards has only increased since the onset of COVID-19, suggesting that industry proponents are exploiting this public health crisis to further their own dangerous and controversial policies.
Industry actors contributing to the wave of anti-protest bills include American Petroleum Institute (API), IHS Markit, The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), and most effectively, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), by way of its primary financial backer, Koch Industries (Fang, 2014, Shelor, 2017).
ALEC is the source of the model legislation “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” of 2017, intended to make it a felony to “impede,” “inhibit,” “impair,” or “interrupt” critical infrastructure operation and/or construction. Close approximations – if not exact replicas – of this legislative template have been passed in 11 hydrocarbon rich and/or pathway states, and 8 more are being debated in 4 additional states.
The “critical infrastructure” designation in ALEC’s “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act” is extremely broad, including over 70 pieces of infrastructure, from wastewater treatment and well pads, to ports and pipelines. However, along with the 259 Foreign Trade Zones (FTZ) (Figures 1 and 4) supervised by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), security is of such importance because over 50% of this infrastructure is related to oil and gas. According to our analysis, there are more than 8,000 unique pieces of infrastructure that fall under this designation, with over 10% in the Marcellus/Utica states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. See Figure 1 for the number of FTZ per state.
Regarding FTZ, the US Department of Homeland Security doesn’t attempt to hide their genuine nature, boldly proclaiming them “… the United States’ version of what are known internationally as free-trade zones … to serve adequately ‘the public interest’.” If there remains any confusion as to who these zones are geared toward, the US Department of Commerce’s International Administration (ITA) makes the link between FTZ and the fossil fuel industry explicit in its FTZ FAQ page, stating “The largest industry currently using zone procedures is the petroleum refining industry.” (Figure 2)
Much of the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries’ efforts stem from the mass resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Native American tribes and environmental groups spent months protesting the environmentally risky $3.78 billion dollar project, which began production in June 2017, after Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction during his first week in office. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe also sued the US government in a campaign effort to protect their tribal lands. The world watched as Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, destroyed Native artifacts and sacred sites, and as police deployed tear gas and sprayed protesters with water in temperatures below freezing.
ETP’s bottom line and reputation were damaged during the fight against DAPL. Besides increasingly militarized law enforcement, the oil and gas industry has retaliated by criminalizing similar types of protests against fossil fuel infrastructure. However, the tireless work of Native Americans and environmental advocates has resulted in a recent victory in March 2020, when a federal judge ordered a halt to the pipeline’s production and an extensive new environmental review of DAPL.
Just days ago, on July 6, 2020, a federal judge ruled that DAPL must shut down until further environmental review can assess potential hazards to the landscape and water quality of the Tribe’s water source. This is certainly a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other environmental defenders, but the decision is subject to appeal.
Since the DAPL conflict began, the industry has been hastily coordinating state-level legislation in anticipation of resistance to other notable national gas transmission pipelines, more locally concerning projects like Class II Oil and Gas Waste Injection Wells, and miles of gas gathering pipelines that transport increasing streams of waste – as well as oil and gas – to coastal processing sites.
The following “critical infrastructure” bills have already been enacted:
|West Virginia||HB 4615||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||3/25/20|
|South Dakota||SB 151||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE||3/18/20|
|Kentucky||HB 44||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR PIPELINES AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE||3/16/20|
|Wisconsin||AB 426||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||11/21/19|
|Missouri||HB 355||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||7/11/19|
|Texas||HB 3557||NEW CRIMINAL AND CIVIL PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS AROUND CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||6/14/19|
|Tennessee||SB 264||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||5/10/19|
|Indiana||SB 471||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||5/6/19|
|North Dakota||HB 2044||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||4/10/19|
|Louisiana||HB 727||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR PROTESTING NEAR A PIPELINE||5/30/18|
|Oklahoma||HB 1123||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||5/3/17|
There are an additional eight bills proposed and under consideration in these six states:
|Louisiana||HB 197||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/24/20|
|Minnesota||HF 3668||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||2/24/20|
|Mississippi||HB 1243||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/19/20|
|Alabama||SB 45||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||2/4/20|
|Minnesota||HF 2966||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR OIL AND GAS PIPELINES||1/31/20|
|Minnesota||SF 2011||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR GAS AND OIL PIPELINES||3/4/19|
|Ohio||SB 33||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||2/12/19|
|Illinois||HB 1633||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE||1/31/19|
Activists and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are framing their opposition to such legislation as an attempt to stave off the worst Orwellian instincts of our elected officials, whether they are in Columbus or Mar-a-Lago. On the other hand, industry and prosecutors are framing these protests as terroristic acts that threaten national security, which is why sentencing comes with a felony conviction and up to ten years in prison. The view of the FBI’s deputy assistant director and top official in charge of domestic terrorism John Lewis is that, “In recent years, the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front have become the most active, criminal extremist elements in the United States … the FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and ecoterrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.”
It shocked many when last week, two protesters in the petrochemical-laden “Cancer Alley” region of Louisiana were arrested and charged under the state’s felony “terrorist” law. Their crime? Placing boxes of nurdles – plastic pellets that are the building blocks of many single-use plastic products – on the doorsteps of fossil fuel lobbyists’ homes. To make matters more ridiculous, the nurdles were illegally dumped by the petrochemical company Formosa Plastics. This is outrageous indeed, but is the sort of legally-sanctioned oppression that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been successfully advocating for years.
American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) stated in a letter of support for ALEC’s legislative efforts:
“In recent years, there has been a growing and disturbing trend of individuals and organizations attempting to disrupt the operation of critical infrastructure in the energy, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation industries. Energy infrastructure is often targeted by environmental activists to raise awareness of climate change and other perceived environmental challenges. These activities, however, expose individuals, communities, and the environment to unacceptable levels of risk, and can cause millions of dollars in damage … As the private sector continues to expand and maintain the infrastructure necessary to safely and reliably deliver energy and other services to hundreds of millions of Americans, policymakers should continue to consider how they can help discourage acts of sabotage … Finally, it will also hold organizations both criminally and vicariously liable for conspiring with individuals who willfully trespass or damage critical infrastructure sites.”
Those organizations deemed ‘criminally and vicariously liable’ would in some states face fines an order of magnitude greater than the actual individual, which would cripple margin-thin environmental groups around the country, and could amount to $100,000 to $1,000,000. The AFPM’s senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs Derrick Morgan referred to these vicarious organizations as “inspiring … organizations who have ill intent, want to encourage folks to damage property and endanger lives …”
Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association (OKOGA) wrote in a fear-mongering letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin that such legislation was necessary to “protect all Oklahomans from risk of losing efficient and affordable access to critical services needed to power our daily lives.”
One of the most disturbing aspects of this legislation is that it could, according to the testimony and additional concerns of ACLU of Ohio’s Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels, equate “‘impeding’ and ‘inhibiting’ the ‘operations’ of a critical infrastructure site” with acts as innocuous as Letters to the Editor, labor strikes or protests, attending and submitting testimony at hearings, or simply voicing your concern or objections to the validity of industry claims and its proposals with emails, faxes, phone calls, or a peaceful protest outside critical infrastructure that raises the concern of site security. Mr. Daniels noted in his additional written testimony that the latter, “may prove inconvenient to the site’s staff, under SB 250 they would be an F3 [Third Degree Felony], and that is without someone even stepping foot on or near the property, as physical presence is not required to be guilty of criminal mischief, as found in/defined in Sec. 2907.07(A)(7) of the bill.”
This connection, when enshrined into law, will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and assembly, and will stop protests or thoughtful lines of questioning before they even start. As the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) put it in their request for residents to ask the governor to veto the now-enacted HB 4615, such a bill is unnecessary, duplicative, deceitful, un-American, unconstitutional, and “will further crowd our jails and prisons.”
To combat such industry-friendly legislation that erodes local government control in Ohio, lawmakers like State Senator Nikki Antonio are introducing resolutions like SR 221, which would, “abolish corporate personhood and money-as-speech doctrine” made law by the Supreme Court of the United States’ rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and Buckley v. Valeo. After all, the overarching impact of ALEC’s efforts and those described below furthers privatized, short-term profit and socialized, long-term costs, and amplifies the incredibly corrosive Citizen’s United decision a little over a decade ago.
Simultaneously, there is an effort to criminalize protest activities through “riot boosting acts,” increased civil liability and decreased police liability, trespassing penalties, and new sanctions for protestors who conceal their identities (by wearing a face mask, for example).
The following bills have already been enacted:
|South Dakota||SB 189||EXPANDED CIVIL LIABILITY FOR PROTESTERS AND PROTEST FUNDERS||3/27/19|
|West Virginia||HB 4618||ELIMINATING POLICE LIABILITY FOR DEATHS WHILE DISPERSING RIOTS AND UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLIES||3/10/18|
|North Dakota||HB 1426||HEIGHTENED PENALTIES FOR RIOT OFFENCES||2/23/17|
|North Dakota||HB 1293||EXPANDED SCOPE OF CRIMINAL TRESPASS||2/23/17|
|North Dakota||HB 1304||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||2/23/17|
In addition, the following bills have been proposed and are under consideration:
|Rhode Island||H 7543||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||2/12/20|
|Oregon||HB 4126||HARSH PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||1/28/20|
|Tennessee||SB 1750||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||1/21/20|
|Ohio||HB 362||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTERS WHO CONCEAL THEIR IDENTITY||10/8/19|
|Pennsylvania||SB 887||NEW PENALTIES FOR PROTESTS NEAR “CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE”||10/7/19|
|Massachusetts||HB 1588||PROHIBITION ON MASKED DEMONSTRATIONS||1/17/19|
All the while, the Bundy clan of Utah pillage – and at times – hold our public lands hostage, and white male Michiganders enter the state capital in Lansing armed for Armageddon, because they feel that COVID-19 is a hoax. We imagine that it isn’t these types of folks that West Virginia State Representatives John Shott and Roger Hanshaw had in mind when they wrote and eventually successfully passed HB 4618, which eliminated police liability for deaths while dispersing riots and unlawful assemblies.
Contrarily, South Dakota’s SB 189, or “Riot Boosting Act,” was blocked by the likes of US District Judge Lawrence L. Piersol, who wrote:
“Imagine that if these riot boosting statutes were applied to the protests that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, what might be the result? … Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference could have been liable under an identical riot boosting law.”
FracTracker collaborated with Crude Accountability on a report documenting increasing reprisals against environmental activists in the US and Eurasia. Read the Report.
Despite Judge Piersol’s ruling, South Dakota (SB 151) joined Kentucky (HB 44) and West Virginia (HB 4615) in passing some form of ALEC’s bill since the COVID-19 epidemic took hold of the US. This is classic disaster capitalism. As former Barack Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
In all fairness to Mr. Emanuel, he was referring to the Obama administration’s support for the post-2008 bipartisan Wall Street bailout. However, it is critical that we acknowledge the push for critical infrastructure legislation has been most assuredly bipartisan, with Democratic Governors in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wisconsin signing into law their versions on March 16th of this year, in May of 2018, and in November of 2019, respectively.
According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 11 states have passed some version of ALEC’s bill, with the first uncoincidentally being a series of three bills signed in February of 2017 by North Dakota Governor Burgum, targeting “Heightened Penalties for Riot Offences” (HB 1426), “Expanded Scope of Criminal Trespass” (HB 1293), and “New Penalties for Protestors Who Conceal Their Identity” (HB 1304), with at least one member of ALEC’s stable of elected officials, Rep. Kim Koppelman, proudly displaying his affiliation in his biography on the North Dakota Legislative Branch’s website. Mr. Koppelman, along with Rep. Todd Porter out of Mandan, also cosponsored two of these bills.
In Columbus, Ohio, there are several pieces of legislation being pushed in concert with ALEC-led efforts. These include the recently submitted HB 362, that would “create the crime of masked intimidation.” Phil Plummer and George F. Lang sponsor the bill, with the latter being the same official who introduced HB 625, a decidedly anti-local control bill that would preempt communities from banning plastic bags. Most of the general public and some of the country’s largest supermarket chains have identified plastic bag bans as a logical next step as they wrestle with their role in the now universally understood crimes plastics have foisted on our oceans and shores. As Cleveland Scene’s Sam Allard wrote, “bill mills” and their willing collaborators in states like Ohio cause such geographies to march “boldly, with sigils flying in the opposite direction” of progress, and a more renewable and diversified energy future.
With respect to Plummer and Lang’s HB 362, two things must be pointed out:
1) It is eerily similar to North Dakota’s HB 1304 that created new penalties for protestors who conceal their identity, and
2) The North Dakota bill was conveniently signed into law by Governor Burgum on February 23rd, 2017, who had set the day prior as the “deadline for the remaining [DAPL] protesters to leave an encampment on federal land near the area of the pipeline company’s construction site.”
So, when elected officials as far away as Columbus copy and paste legislation passed in the aftermath of the DAPL resistance efforts, it is clear the message they are conveying, and the audience(s) they are trying to intimidate.
Plummer and Lang’s HB 362 would add a section to the state’s “Offenses Against the Public Peace,” Chapter 2917, that would in part read:
No person shall wear a mask or disguise in order to purposely do any of the following:
(A) Obstruct the execution of the law;
(B) Intimidate, hinder, or interrupt a person in the performance of the person’s legal duty; or
(C) Prevent a person from exercising the rights granted to them by the Constitution or the laws of this state.
Whoever violates this proposed section is guilty of masked intimidation. Masked intimidation is a first degree misdemeanor. It was critical for the DAPL protestors to protect their faces during tear gas and pepper spray barrages, from county sheriffs and private security contractors alike.
At the present moment, masks are one of the few things standing between COVID-19 and even more death. Given these realities, it is stunning that our elected officials have the time and/or interest in pushing bills such as HB 362 under the thin veil of law and order.
But judging by what one West Virginia resident and former oil and gas industry draftsman, wrote to us recently, elected officials do not really have much to lose, given how little most people think of them:
“Honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter what we do. The only success most of us have had is in possibly slowing the process down and adding to the cost that the companies incur. But then again, the increase in costs probably just gets passed down to the consumers. One of the biggest drawbacks in my County is that most, if not all, of the elected officials are pro drilling. Many of them have profited from it.”
The oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are revealing their weakness by scrambling to pass repressive legislation to counteract activists. But social movements around the world are determined to address interrelated social and environmental issues before climate chaos renders our planet unlivable, particularly for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We hope that by shining a light on these bills, more people will become outraged enough to join the fight against antidemocratic legislation.
This is Part I of a two-part series on concerning legislation related to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Part II focuses on bills that would weaken environmental regulations in Ohio, Michigan, and South Dakota.
By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator and Shannon Smith, Manager of Communications & Development
 See Naomi Klein’s concept of the Shock Doctrine for similar trends.
 The community-based environmental organization RISE St. James has been working tirelessly to prevent Formosa Plastics from building one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the US in their Parish. Sharon Lavigne is a leading member of RISE St. James, and is an honored recipient of the 2019 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. Read more on Sharon’s work with RISE St. James here.
 This individual lives in Central West Virginia, and formerly monitored Oil & Gas company assets in primarily WV, PA, NY, VA, MD & OH, as well as the Gulf Coast. Towards the end of this individual’s career, they provided mapping support for the smart pigging program, call before you dig, and the pipeline integrity program.
FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!
This map has been updated since this blog post was originally published, and therefore statistics and figures below may no longer correspond with the map
The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:
For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps.
This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?
The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?
In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.
In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).
This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.
The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”
The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.
This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.
In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.
One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others. The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.
The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.
The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses. Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.
China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.
In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.
We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.
Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.
This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.
Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.
Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.
The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.
As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.
Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.
Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.
Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)
In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
What will this map look like in the next 30 years?
A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”
Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?
Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.
How the frac sand industry is circumventing local control, plus where the industry is migrating
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
|County||Number of Parcels||Total Acreage||Average Parcel Acreage|
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
These 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).
|Gallon Per Ton|
|Wisconsin Industrial Sand||Maiden Rock Facility||Maiden Rock||Pierce||98||90||66||—|
|Thompson, Terry||Thompson Hills Mine||Chetek||Barron||—||30||521||—|
|CSP||Rice Lake Mine||Rice Lake||Barron||—||—||—||104|
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).
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).
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).
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.
Guest blog by Christine Yellowthunder, an environmental activist, tree farmer, and poet
Most people living in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have increased their knowledge over the past six years regarding the fracking destruction occurring across the country. The horror of fracking damages to life and land remain in the minds of most people who live near the massive land destruction from silica sand mining for what the unconventional oil and gas industry lovingly calls “proppant”.
Very often, we in the Midwest wonder if the rest of the country knows that this specialized form of silica sand mining destroys our rolling hills, woodlands, and water sources in order for silica sand to feed the fracking industry’s insatiable proppant demand.
Those of us who live in the direct path of this unhealthy silica sand mining need to make our stories known.
The quiet abundance of life on an 80-acre tree farm in Wisconsin, fed by natural springs and wetlands, has nurtured every dream this prairie-raised transplant could conceive in the last 30 years. Six years of vigilance and rational debate has led to loss on every front when addressing the local government’s permitting of silica sand mines and its health and safety impacts on the community.
The largest sand mine in Bridge Creek Town lies one mile north of our tree farm. Two years ago, 40 acres of trees were culled for the installation of high intensity power lines to feed anticipated silica sand mine expansion under the legal provision of “Right-of-Way.” That document was signed by a previous land owner in 1948. No specific amount of land was specified on the original right-of-way, thus allowing significant legal destruction and permanent loss against the farm.
However, from a tree farm owner’s perspective, we have seen the variety and number of wildlife species increase at our farm over the past six years – likely because these species view our farm as an oasis, or what ecologists call a refugium, in an otherwise altered mixed-use landscape. The maximum capacity of the tree farm as a wildlife sanctuary is unknown. The adjacent silica Hi-Crush sand mine depletes the hillsides and woodlots in its path.
The weekly blasting away of the hillsides sends shock waves – shaking homes and outbuildings weekly, along with our nerves. Visible cracks appear in the walls of buildings, and private wells are monitored for collapse and contamination. The sand mine only guarantees repair to property lying within a half-mile of the mine. The mine blasts the land near Amish schools and has had a noticeable effect on the psyche of countless farm animals. The invisible silica is breathed by every living thing much to the mine’s denial, with deadly silicosis appearing up to 15 years after initial exposure. Our community is left to wonder who will manifest the health effects first. Blasting unearths arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into private wells and into the remaining soil.
There has been no successful reclamation of the land after it is mined, with most residents wondering what the actual point is of developing a reclamation plan is if timely implementation and stringent reclamation metrics are not enforced. All useful topsoil has been stripped away and is dead with the land only able to support sedge grasses and very few of them at best. No farming on this mined land can occur even though these mining companies promise farm owners that when they are done mining, soil productivity will meet or exceed pre-mining conditions and much milder slopes than the pre-mining bluffs that contained the silica sand. Needless to say, land values of homes, farms, and property decrease as the mines creeps closer.
Explore photos of Hi-Crush Partner’s frac sand mine:
Bridge Creek, as well as many other towns, have been easy picking for the mines. Many towns are unzoned, having little industry, a meager tax base, and a huge land area for a very sparse population. The unemployment and underemployment rates are quite high. Many residents in Bridge Creek farm, including a very large population of Amish who own a checkerboard of land used for farming and saw mills. Most of these Amish families arrived here from Canada and bought farms when the mid 80’s drought put small farms up for sale. The Amish community seldom votes, and their strong religious beliefs prevent them from taking a stand on any political issues.
Video of contaminated well water an Amish farm in Augusta, WI near frac sand mining
Scroll to the end of the article to explore more impacts to the Amish community
The original residents of this land, the Ho-Chunk people, are few in number and wish to protect their home lands that they had purchased back from the government.
Furthermore, a significant number of artists live in this community and have chosen to keep their homes and studios in anonymity. Thus, it is very difficult to amass any unity among this diverse population to stand up to the local government. Many long-time residents have the attitude that you can’t stop “progress.” I wonder if they know that this kind of progress kills the future?
Broken promises made by the mining company for jobs and huge payments to the initial land sellers have divided families and the community. Even though the mining boom was sold as a job provider, few locals are employed by the mines. There is little faith that the local government will provide for the safety and well being of its residents. Presentation of research, facts regarding aquifer endangerment and silica sand health risks, and proposals written in detail outlining potential protective ordinances have cost citizens, including myself, enormous amounts of time and money. The government responses remain the same. The sand mines have been allowed to continue destruction of the natural resources to no one’s benefit except for the enormous profits lining the coffers of the mining corporations.
Today, after six years of continuous silica sand mining moving ever closer, I can no longer fight logically and linearly to eliminate the greed, injustice, and usurped power head on. I fight land destruction as a different warrior.
I choose to protect this land and wood by nurturing its existence through planting more native trees, educating others to the wisdom and wonder of nature, by photo journaling the struggle for its survival and documenting this land’s story so that future citizens will know the truth. Moreover, I will continue to spread the message loud and long: stopping the silica sand mining will stop fracking.
These efforts may be the best that I can manage with a grieving heart. A fierce spirit will continue to share this story and those of others living in the Midwest where the silica sand laden hills roll under the top soil of our lives.
Christine Yellowthunder is an environmental activist of Lakota heritage and is also a tree farmer and poet. She lives on her farm with her husband Ralph Yellowthunder, a Ho-Chunk elder and Vietnam combat veteran.
Listen below to in interview of an Amish farmer and clock maker who lives adjacent to the Hi-Crush mine, by Ted Auch, FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator, and local resident, Mary Ann O’Donahue:
The frac sand mine and its impact on well water
1:35 “We had no problem with the well until they started back here, and then from there on she was orange….in June, I put chickens in the barn and I put a new filter in the line…and in a month’s time it was stopped up”
4: 28 “They hauled all that toxic waste to the back of the mine and dumped it”
Water testing and dust in the air
1:35 “They test for magnesium and manganese and aluminum, metals…there’s like 5 pages of them, and iron, mercury, iodine…everything they say if it’s a certain color it’s high…It’s been going up ever since they started. The first test looked real good, before they started doing anything…and every year since, it’s getting higher and higher and higher…I don’t hear nothing from them, they take the sample and that’s it…They don’t come talk about it, they’re not concerned that it’s raising”
7:15 “I can have my cart sitting underneath the overhang by the shop and I’ve never had to worry about it being much dusty. But if it’s sitting underneath there over there in the summer time…it’s not there a day before it’s covered in it.” “And that stuff’s going in your mouth too.”
Hi-Crush pond and blasts from the mine
1:40 “Who knows what’s in the pond?” “Well, that’s the problem, all the chemicals they use they never tell anybody what they’re using to process this stuff, and it’s all in where ever it runs off”
7:15 “You should’ve been here Monday…It was a real hard blast… I had the engine running and was working in [the shop], and it was a very big shaking there, and I noticed it so it had to be a real big one and I came to the door to look and [the smoke from the blast] was still three lengths higher than the tree over there… Usually they’re doing it two times a week…I’m sure it [affected] my house, because my ceiling’s cracked more and more. There was one lady here once when it happened and she didn’t stay very long, she said ‘I’m going home, I’m not staying in this house'”
Impact to animals, light pollution, interactions with workers
0:50 “She was riding a buggy and…they just happened to blast about the time the horse was as close as it could be and the horse freaked out and ran and she couldn’t control it”
Relations between workers, local officials, and the Amish community
Accidents involving farm animals, workers, and residents
Photos of the property and workshop:
Feature image: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from LightHawk.
“The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry author of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
I always tell people that you can’t really understand or appreciate the enormity, heterogeneity, and complexity of the unconventional oil and gas industry’s impact unless you look at the landscape from the cockpit of a Cessna 172. This bird’s-eye-view allows you to see the grandeur and nuance of all things beautiful and humbling. Conversely, and unfortunately more to the point of what I’ve seen in the last year, a Cessna allows one to really absorb the extent, degree, and intensity of all things destructive.
I’ve had the opportunity to hop on board the planes of some amazing pilots like Dave Warner, a forester formerly of Shanks, West Virginia (Note: More on our harrowing West Virginia flight with Dave later!!), Tim Jacobson Esq. out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, northern Illinois retired commodity and tree farmer Doug Harford, and Target corporate jet pilot Fred Muskol out of the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.
Since joining FracTracker I’ve been fortunate to have completed nearly a dozen of these “morning flights” as I like to call them, and five of those have taken place since August 2017. I’m going to take the next few paragraphs to share what I’ve found in my own words and by way of some of the photos I think really capture how hydraulic fracturing, and all of its tentacles, has impacted the landscape.
The following is by no means an empirical illustration. I’m increasingly aware, however, that often times tables, charts, and graphs fail to capture much of the scale and scope of fossil fuel’s impact. Photos, if properly georeferenced and curated, are as robust a source of data as a spreadsheet or shapefile, both of which are the traditional coins of the realm here at FracTracker.
August 2, 2017
It was nearly a year ago today that I met Bloomer, Wisconsin dairy farmer Ken Schmitt at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (KEAU) and soon thereafter jumped into Tim Jacobson’s Cessna 172 to get a bird’s-eye-view of the region’s many frac sand mines and their impacts (Figure 1). These sites are spread out over a 12-county region known as West Central Wisconsin (WCW). Ken hadn’t been up to see these mines since October of 2016 and was eager to see how they had “progressed,” knowing what he did about their impact on his neck of the woods in northern Chippewa County.
Ken is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, and – befitting a dairy farmer – he is also one of the most conservative and analytical folks I’ve ever met. However, that morning it was clear that his patience with county administrators and the frac sand mining industry had long since run out. He was tired of broken promises, their clear and ubiquitous bullying tactics, and a general sense that his livelihood and the farm he was hoping to leave his kids were at risk due to sand mining’s complete capture of WCW’s residents and administrators.
Meanwhile Mr. Jacobson Esq. was intimately familiar with some of the legal tools residents were using to fight the spread of sand mining in the WCW. This is something he referred to as “anticipatory nuisance” lawsuits, which he and his colleagues were pursuing on behalf of several landowners against OmniTrax’s (f/k/a Terracor) “sand mine, wet and dry processing, a conveyor system to a rail load out with manifest yard” proposal in Jackson County, Wisconsin. I, too, have worked with Tim to inform some of his legal work with respect to the nuisance stories and incidents I’ve documented in my travels, as well as research into the effects of sand mining across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Explore details from our sand mining tour by clicking on the images below:
Our flight lasted nearly 2.5 hours and stretched out over 4,522 square miles. It included nearly 20 sand mines – and related infrastructure – in the counties of Jackson, Wood, Clark, Eau Claire, Monroe, Trempealeau, and Buffalo. What we saw was a sizeable expansion of the mining complex in the region since the last time I flew the area – nearly four years earlier on October 8, 2013. The number and size of mines that had popped up since that trip were far greater than any of us had expected.
This expansion paralleled the relative – and total –increase in demand for “proppant” from the High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (HVHF) all across the country (Figure 2).
January 26, 2018
On the morning of January 26th, I woke up on the west side of Cleveland thinking there was very little chance we were going to get up in the air for our flight with SouthWings’ pilot Dave Warner due to inclement weather. There was a part of me that was optimistic, however, so I decided to make the three hour drive down to the Marshall County Airport (KMPG) in Moundsville, West Virginia from Cleveland in the hopes that the “cold rain and snow” we’d been receiving was purely lake effect stuff and the West Virginia panhandle had not been in the path of the same cold front.
Unfortunately, when I arrived at the Moundsville airport I was wrong, and the runway was pretty slick around 8:00 a.m. However, the airport’s staff worked diligently to de-ice and plow the runway and by the time Dave Warner arrived from southern West Virginia conditions were ideal. The goal of this flight was two-fold:
Both of these goals were achieved efficiently and safely, with the resulting Allegheny Front piece receiving significant interest across multiple public radio and television platforms including PRI’s Living On Earth.
Explore details from our WV / OH tour by clicking on the images below:
On my return drive home that afternoon the one new thing that really resonated with me was the fact that hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to be defined by 4-5 acre well pads across Appalachian, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. This is a myth, however, expertly perpetuated by the oil and gas industry and their talking shops. Fracking’s extreme volatility and quick declines in rates of return necessitate that this latest fossil fuel iteration install large pieces of infrastructure like compressor stations and cracking facilities. This all is to ensure timely movement of product from supply to demand and to optimize the “value added” products the global markets demand and plastics industry uses as their primary feedstocks. This large infrastructure was never mentioned at the outset of the shale revolution, and I would imagine if it had been there would be far more resistance.
The one old thing the trip reinforced was the omnipresence and sinuosity of natural gas gathering lines across extremely steep and forested Appalachian geographies. How these pipelines will hold up and what their hasty construction is doing to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, not to mention humanity, is anyone’s guess; the data is just so darn bad.
March 5, 2018 – aka, The XTO Powhatan Point Well Pad Explosion Flight
Around 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 2018, an explosion occurred at XTO’s Schnegg frack pad “as the company worked to frack a fourth well” in Powhatan Point, Belmont County, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, a two-mile Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) was enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) around the incident’s location. The TFR was supposed to lapse during the afternoon of March 5, however, due to complications at the site the TFR was extended to the evening of March 8.
We were antsy to see what we could see, so we caught an emergency flight with Dave Warner, only this time under the LightHawk umbrella. We left on the morning of March 5th out of the all too familiar Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO). Although we couldn’t get close to the site, there was a holler valley to the northwest of the pad that allowed us to capture a photo of the ongoing releases. Additionally, within several weeks we obtained by FOIA the raw Ohio State Trooper monitoring footage from their helicopter and posted this footage to our YouTube channel, where it has received 4,787 views since March 19, 2018. This type of web traffic is atypical for anything that doesn’t include kittens, the Kardashians, or the Kardashians’ kittens.
Explore details from our Southeastern Ohio tour by clicking on the images below:
Much like our flight in January the most salient points I got out of Dave’s plane thinking about were:
It is a big plant, a very big plant and far bigger than other plants around here… What’s really amazing that we got it up and running in six months. No one believed that we could do that. – Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize discussing their natural gas liquids-separating complex in Scio, Ohio.
May 24 & 26, 2018
Frac Sand Mines and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Buffalo Herd, Franklin Grove, Illinois
It was during the week of June 20, 2016 that I first visited the frac sand mine capital of the United States: LaSalle County, Illinois. Here is the land of giant silica sand mines owned by even larger multinationals like U.S. Silica, Unimin, and Fairmount Santrol.
Fast forward to the week of May 21st of this year, and I was back in the frac sand capital to interview several folks that live near these mines or have been advocating for a more responsible industry. I conducted a “morning flight” with several journalists and county officials from neighboring Ottawa County.
LaSalle County is an extremely interesting case study for anyone even remotely interested in the food, energy, and water (FEW) conversation that has begun to receive significant attention in the age of the “Shale Revolution.” (Such focus is largely thanks to the extreme amounts of water required during the fracking process.) While LaSalle County has never experienced even a single HVHF permit, it is home to much of the prized silica or “proppant” the HVHF industry prizes. La Salle receives this recognition due to its location above one of the finest sources of silica sand: the St. Peter Sandstone formation. This situation has prompted a significant expansion in the permitting of new silica sand mines and expansion of existing mines throughout the county – from small townships like North Utica and Oglesby to Troy Grove 7 miles north on East 8th Road.
Meanwhile, LaSalle County is home to some of the most productive soils in the United States, due largely to the carbon sequestration capabilities of the tallgrass prairies that once dominated the region. In any given year, the county ranks in the top 5 nationally based on the amount of soybean and corn produced on a per-acre basis. According to an analysis of the most recent USDA agricultural census, total agricultural value in LaSalle County exceeds $175 million or seven times the national average by county of roughly $23 million.
Needless to say, the short-term extraction of silica sands in the name of “energy independence” stands to have a profound impact on long-term “food security” in the U.S. and worldwide. Sadly, this conflict is similar to the one facing the aforementioned West Central Wisconsin, home to similarly productive soils. The cows that feed on the forage those soils produce some of the highest quality dairy anywhere. (As an aside: both regions are facing the realities of their disproportionate support for Donald Trump and the effects his trade war will have on their economies.)
LaSalle County is also home to the 2,630-acre Starved Rock State Park along the south bank of the Illinois River. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) back in the early 1900s. Starved Rock is home to 18 canyons featuring:
… vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial meltwater that slice dramatically through tree-covered sandstone bluffs. More than 13 miles of trails allow access to waterfalls, fed season runoff or natural springs, sandstone overhangs, and spectacular overlooks. Lush vegetation supports abundant wildlife, while oak, cedar and pine grow on drier, sandy bluff tops. – IL DNR
Starved Rock receives more than 2.5 million visitors annually, which is the most of any Illinois state park. However, it is completely surrounded by existing or proposed frac sand mines, including US Silica’s Covel Creek mine. US Silica even recently pitched an expansion to the doorstep of Starved Rock and future plans to nearly engulf the park’s perimeter. What such an expansion would do to the attractiveness of the park and its trickle down economic impact is debatable, but LaSalle County residents Paul Wheeler and photographer Michelle McCray took a stab at illustrating the value of the state park to residents for our audience back in August, 2016:
Explore details from our Illinois tour by clicking on the images below:
All passengers were struck by how large these mines were and how much several of the mines had expanded since the last time we all flew over them in June of 2016. The mines that had experienced the greatest rates of expansion were US Silica’s LaSalle Voss mine along Interstate 80 and the aforementioned Illinois River mine along with Fairmount Mineral’s major expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and actual mine footprint, in Wedron along the Fox River.
Most of this expansion is due to three critical distinguishing characteristics about the industry in LaSalle County:
However, all is not lost in North Central Illinois. This hope was stoked during our sojourn – and my subsequent trip in person – up to see The Nature Conservancy’s 3,600 acre preserve in Franklin Grove on the border of Lee and Ogle counties. As someone who is working hard to establish a small plot of prairie grasses and associated wildflowers at my home outside Cleveland, I was hoping to see what an established prairie looks like from the air. My primary goal, however, was to see what a healthy herd of native bison looks like. The Nachusa bison are unique in that they came:
… from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and…Unlike most other American bison, animals from the Wind Cave herd have no history of cross-breeding with cattle. Bison from Wind Cave are the species’ most genetically pure and diverse specimens.
We were fortunate during our flight to have spotted the heard at the western edge of the preserve in what volunteer naturalist, Betty Higby, later told me the staff calls Oak Island. While I am not a person of faith, seeing these behemoths roaming freely and doing what 20-30 million of their ancestors used to do across much of North America moved me in a way I was not prepared for. I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of awe and humility. How was I going to explain this beast’s former ubiquity and current novelty to my 5-year-old son, who shares a love of the North American Bison with me and would most certainly ask me what happened to this majestic creature?
June 25, 2018
Ohio is currently home to 2,840 fracking permits, with 2,370 of these laterals having been drilled since September 2010. The growing concern around the fracking and petrochemicals conversation across much of the Midwest is the increasing number of FERC-permitted natural gas pipeline “proposals” the industry is demanding it needs to maximize potential. Most residents in the path of these pipelines have strong objections to such development, citing the fact that imminent domain should not be invoked for corporate gain.
Much like all of the other patterns and processes we’ve documented and/or photographed at FracTracker, we felt that a flight over the latest FERC-approved pipeline – The NEXUS pipeline – would give us a better understanding of how this critical piece of infrastructure has altered the landscapes of Medina and Stark counties. Given the population density of these two northeastern Ohio counties, we also wanted to document the pipeline’s pathway with respect to urban and suburban centers.
Our flight on June 25th was delayed due to low clouds and last minute changes to the flight plan, but once we took off from Wadsworth Municipal Airport (3G3) with a local flight instructor it was clear that NEXUS is a pipeline that navigates a sinuous path in cities and townships like Green, Medina, Rittman, and Seville – coming dangerously close to thousands of homes and farms, as well as many schools and medical facilities.
Explore details from our NEXUS Pipeline tour by clicking on the images below:
Will this be the last FERC-approved pipeline to transverse Ohio in the name of “energy independence”? Will this pipeline and its brethren with names like the Utopia and ET Rover be monitored in real-time? If not, why? It is unfortunate, to say the least, that we so flippantly assume these pipelines are innocuous given their proximity to so many Ohioans. And, as if to add insult to injury, imminent domain is invoked. All this for a piece of oil and gas infrastructure that will profit companies on the global market, with only a fraction of the revenue returning to affected communities.
I don’t know of a better way to understand the magnitude of these pipelines than flying over them at 1,000-1,500 feet, and I will continue to monitor and photograph oil and gas developments from the air with the assistance of amazing pilots like those affiliated with LightHawk and SouthWings.
To this end, I will be returning to West Central Wisconsin for yet another “morning flight” with the aforementioned La Crosse-area pilot and lawyer Tim Jacobson and frequent collaborator University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Tom Pearson. Our flight plan will return us to the northern Wisconsin frac sand counties of Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Eau Claire, and if we have time we’ll revisit the mines we photographed in August of last year. We’ve been told by Susan Bence, an environmental reporter out of Milwaukee Public Radio, that she is trying to convince the powers that be at NPR in Washington, DC that this is a story the entire country should hear about. Wish us luck!
By Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program Coordinator
Surface mining to obtain sand that is perfectly sized for use in the hydraulic fracturing process has been increasing in recent years. Over the summer, FracTracker had the opportunity to document a number of sand mining activities occurring in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin that supply frac sand to the oil and gas industry. Explore a selection of this imagery below:
Explore these and other frac sand mining photos and videos in our online album. The most recent imagery can be found at the bottom of the album. Additional videos are also available on this YouTube channel.
All of these frac sand photos, and more, can also be found on our Energy Imagery page, organized by topic and also location.
If you have photos or videos that you would like to contribute to this growing collection of publicly available information, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, along with where and when the imagery was taken, and by whom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
We’ve added several new frac sand resources for visitors to our website this month, including a map of frac sand mines, as well as geolocated data you can download. Explore these resources using the map and links below:
View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work
On the map above you can view silica sands/frac sand mines, drying facilities, and value-added facilities in North America. Click view map fullscreen to see the legend, an address search bar, and other tools available on our maps.
Additional data shown on this map include addresses and facility polygons. Wisconsin provides sand production data for 24 facilities, so that information has been included on this map. The remaining Wisconsin and other state facilities do not have production or acreage data associated with them. (Most states lack disclosure requirements for releasing this kind of data. Additionally the USGS maintains a confidentiality agreement with all firms, preventing us from obtaining production data.)
The sandstone/silica geology polygons (areas on the map) include a breakdown of how much land is currently made up of agriculture, urban/suburban, temperate deciduous forest, and conifer forests. At the present time we only have this information for the primary frac-sand-producing state: Wisconsin. We should have details for Ohio and Minnesota soon.
Click on the links below to download various geolocated datasets (zipped shape files) related to the frac sand industry: