Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

Charlie Warner

Argus News Editor

Sometimes certain causes can create strange bedfellows. That thought came to mind last week during the Houston County Board of Commissioners’ meeting.

A group of concerned citizens urged the county board to consider implementing a moratorium on silica sand mining in the county. The group listed a number of environmental issues and concerns and also the additional wear and tear of township and county roads as reasons why the county should put a moratorium in place.

The Coulee Region has one of the largest deposits of a certain type of silica sand that works best for a new type of oil drilling operation. This silica sand, which is mined from the sandstone deposits located in this region is used by drilling companies to unlock underground natural gas and oil supplies in a controversial practice called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking has opened up enormous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. While geologists knew about these deposits, until recently the costs involved in pulling the oil and gas from the shale rock deep in the earth were too high to make it financially feasible.

Drillers mix the silica sand with water and chemicals, then force it deep underground to fracture shale deposits that hold gas and oil that couldn’t be tapped conventionally. Fracking has become an economic boon to areas in North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

And at a time when the United States is trying to become less fossil fuel dependent with Middle East countries, finding a way of unlocking these huge deposits of oil and nature gas is welcomed news.

The mining of silica (or frac) sand has really been catching on in the Tri-State area.

According to a recent Associated Press article, frac sand mining has had a foothold in Wisconsin’s Chippewa County since 2008. EOG Resources Inc. built a large plant in Chippewa Falls, where a steady flow of trucks delivers a load of orange sand from a nearby mine every few minutes.

The plant, which is still in the start-up phase, will bring 40 to 50 full-time jobs to the community. Mining contractors now employ about 25 people and the trucking company that delivers the sand has added over 70 jobs. About 90 percent of the 38 employees EOG has hired so far are from the area, according to the article.

If my memory serves me, 2008 was the beginning of one of the worst economic slides this country has experienced since the Great Depression. So developing a new industry and new jobs during a very depressed time is something.

Frac sand mining operations have also started up in Minnesota. During the past two years frac sand mining  began in Goodhue, Wabasha and Winona counties.

Because this is such a new industry, apparently some of the environmental issues weren’t fully addressed before county officials approved the mining operations.

Wabasha County instituted a moratorium “up to one year” for any new frac sand mines this past August. Those already in operation can continue. Potential damage to roads, air and water quality issues, impact on neighboring properties and developing some type of land reclamation policy once all the sand is mined in a certain area, are all issues the Wabasha County Board wanted to review.

Goodhue County followed suit in September when their county board approved a one-year moratorium on any new mines.

And last week the Winona County Board approved a similar three-month moratorium.

It appears as if the Houston County Board will follow in the footsteps of the three counties to the north. Board Chairman Jack Miller said that although frac sand mining could be a positive economic boost to the local economy, all of the issues needed to be examined first.

The other members of the Houston County Board also echoed Miller’s thoughts. I agree with the board that this is the most prudent thing to do.

What is interesting about this issue is that the people who have concerns about frac sand mining seem to be environmentalists. They bring up concerns about air and water pollution and damage to our public roads. These are all valid concerns and I agree with them.

But there are some real pluses to developing ways to tap these vast oil and natural gas reserves in the U.S.

Over the past 10 years Uncle Sam has spent several trillion dollars and close to 10,000 American lives trying to keep the peace in the Middle East. One of the main reasons for U.S. involvement in the Middle East is oil. It’s not the only reason we have had such a visible presence there, but it’s the main one.

I doubt if we would have wasted all those lives and nearly bankrupted our country if not for all that oil.

Finding a way to tap the vast deposits of natural gas in the United States will not only provide us with a less expensive means of heating our homes, but a much cleaner way of producing electricity.

And here’s where the real rub comes into play. Persons truly interested in our environment are against coal-fired electric plants. Superheating water to produce electricity with natural gas is much cleaner than with coal.

Our technology hasn’t advanced fast enough to generate all the electricity we need with wind, solar or hydro. What’s the next cleanest alternative? Natural gas. It’s kind of like being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.