IN-DEPTH LOOK: Why Frac Sand is a Hot Commodity
5 EYEWITNESS News is taking an in-depth look at a hot commodity in Minnesota – silica sand, also known as frac sand.
But mining this sand is highly controversial. It’s collected by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and if you haven’t heard of it, you will because it’s big business.
There’s a debate over just about every step in the fracking process. That debate is happening now in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York regarding using fracking as a means of getting natural gas and oil out of the earth.
In the fracking process, producers first drill through many layers of the earth, and then the line is turned horizontally. Frac fluid, which is mostly water with some sand and chemical additives, is then pumped into the ground at high pressure.
When the pressure surpasses the rock strength, the fluid creates fractures that extend hundreds of feet from the well. The fractures free trapped gas or oil and allow it to flow up to the surface where it gets collected.
The silica sand used in this process is key. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the market for it has doubled since 2008. The sand is worth more money than other sand and gravel used in the construction industry, and analysts believe we’ll be fracking wells for decades. Silica sand is strong, well-rounded, and composed of almost pure quartz.
The federal government says 13,000 new or existing wells are fracking each year. Analyst estimates are much higher, though. As for water, estimates also vary depending on the well, but it can take up to 5 million gallons to frac each horizontal well. For the sand, it can take up to 10,000 tons per well.
The valuable resource can bring money for landowners and jobs to the area. However, there are also environmental concerns. They include pollution from increased mining, added traffic, and concern about silica dust, which they federal government says can cause cancer.
The fracking industry has racked up several wins against the EPA. Most recently, the agency dropped its claim accusing a fracking company of polluting wells in Texas. The EPA is currently studying the impacts of fracturing on drinking and ground water, and the report is due out later this year.
There are six mining locations in Minnesota – in Washington, Winona, Olmsted, Blue Earth, and LeSueur Counties.
The silica sand is also raising questions in St. Paul, in the St. Anthony Park Neighborhood near the Raymond Avenue Bridge where sand is transported on the railroad there. The community council’s environmental committee is having a public meeting to talk about concerns on Wednesday, June 27.
Silica sand mining is regulated. Counties, townships, or cities are responsible for administering permits to mine. Conditional land use permits, sometimes called special use permits, may be required from local planning and zoning offices, too.
Beyond that, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Environmental Quality Board, the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are also involved.
For an illustration from Natural Geographic and the Minnesota DNR’s explanation of the process and regulation, visit our Links page.