The Relative Comment

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The Fracking of Minnesota.

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In Minnesota, there is sand. A lot of sand. Specifically, there is silica sand along the Mississippi River, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And these days, where there is sand, rest assured, there will be fracking. The Star Tribune last Sunday reports on the natural gas industry’s move to the upper Midwest, and all that it brings with it.

Fracking for natural gas is the new future of US energy, in case you haven’t heard. It will provide natural gas for generations, wean the nation off of foreign oil, power our automobiles, release fewer CO2 emissions, provide economic recovery for the blighted rural towns of America, you name it. This may sound mocking, but truly, these things are possible as  result of natural gas, and they should be acknowledged. Of course, there are problems. Food and Water Watch, for example, recommends a ban on fracking entirely. If fracking is the new energy manna, then opposition to fracking is the new environmental crusade.

To be fair, in my opinion, the jury is still out. Fracking could be as bad as Food and Water Watch says. It seems safe to say that there are great water concerns involved, but the science has not convinced me yet. Too much of the fracking opposition in the environmental community is anecdotal (Gasland), and too much of the pro-fracking science is simply industry movement (read: Haliburton). But you know who does pretty sound research? Sorry Michele Bachmann, the EPA (of course, that science does not always see the light of day). And the EPA has a comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing in the works. There is danger in waiting for analysis, especially if we are polluting our water-tables in the meantime, and we should remember the precautionary principle, but the research just isn’t there yet to ensure that the benefits of gas mentioned above do not outweigh the risks to our water resources (or if it is, I’m missing it, and you should send it along).

Waiting for the research, frankly, puts the Mississippi River Valley in jeopardy. Regardless of the environmental dangers of fracking, it is easy to acknowledge (and tremble at) the massive land- and resource-use requirements* of hydraulic fracturing. Do we want to open the Mississippi Valley to the scale of mining on which fracking operates? Silica mines are not new in the upper Midwest, but mines of this high-volume scale will be (the Trib mentions a land purchase that will yield the equivalent of 7 Metrodome fulls of sand, 20 million tons). Taking sand out of the earth is a big deal, the amount of water needed to do so is an even bigger deal. And the nat. gas movement is not to industrial agricultural land  that has been in use for generations (a different, still contentious issue), but lovely country–Chippewa County, WI or bluffs on the river near Red Wing, MN–beautiful forest and sandstone formation river valley. It would be shameful and tragic to see it stripped bare and dug out. Because that is what fracking does. Hydraulic fracturing removes land and replaces it with Nothing. The gas folks know this. Here’s the Star Tribune:

Industry officials acknowledge the worries. “At the top of the list we have dust, trucking and water,” said Rich Budinger, regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sands, which owns mines in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Menomonie. “Blasting is another concern.”
His company works with local communities to minimize the effects, he said — tracking water usage, using tarps on its trucks and limiting the use of dynamite.
But the topography will change.
“The end would be a flat farm field that could be used for an industrial park 25 or 30 years down the road,” he said.

The US needs energy, and consistent energy policy. Do we want that energy to result in stretches of industrial parks? There is little reason to wait out the analysis of environmental concerns to know we don’t want this for some of our most beautiful spaces.

Frontenac State Park, on the Mississippi, just miles south of Red Wing, MN

*I am aware there may be some who see irony in using the land-use argument on fracking, as that same argument is used in support of the fossil fuel industry against renewable energy. However, this argument does not hold up for various reasons that are too detailed to engage in a footnote. But TRC is aware of this potential conflict.

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Written by Christopher ZF

June 14, 2011 at 10:40

One Response

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  1. […] but the product of those wells remains in question. And this problem, far from the glamorous and high-profile issue of fracking, might be the real danger facing the gas industry. The promise of the gas business is that the […]


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