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What’s All the Fuss About Fracking?

September 12, 2016

Originally published by Michigan Farm News on August 9, 2016; republished with permission.

Michigan’s sand dunes and hundreds of miles of shoreline are some of the most notable characteristics of our state. Lesser known to the general population is that this unique landscape helps to feed a booming demand for natural gas. Michigan is one of the country’s top producers of industrial sand that is used for fracking, a process of extracting natural gas from tight rock formations hundreds or even thousands of feet below the surface. A high-pressure mixture comprised of water, sand, and chemicals is directed at rock to open cracks and seams into which gas is released.

The shale gas industry has been depressed recently because natural gas prices are low. However, analysts are predicting an imminent rebound which could mean even greater sand mining activity on our lakeshores.

It is not only lakefront property, however, that is being affected by mining for fracking sand. Thousands of acres of Midwestern farmland in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan sit on top of sand reservoirs, a highly sought- after resource for mining companies.

Much of the sand here is a silicon variety known as St. Peter sandstone, which is also the best type of sand for fracking. Sand with high silica content has round, uniform grain size and strength and is ideal for use as a “proppant” – it keeps the fissures in the rock open wide enough for the gases to flow out toward the head of the well. 

In fracking industry jargon, the land on top of the sand reservoirs (i.e. the top soil and prime farm land) is known as “overburden.” The overburden must be removed in order to excavate the fracking sand. The earth is pushed up into thirty foot berms, and rendered unusable. Other concerns include the heavy traffic of diesel trucks, bright stadium lighting that shines throughout the night, and wind-blown silica- a known human carcinogen.

Mines use millions of gallons of groundwater every day, creating a potential shortage for local communities and farmers who rely on wells for their water.

Advocates of silica sand-mining are quick to offer counterpoints to these concerns. The mining industry offers high-paying opportunities for employment which comes at a time when the Midwest is just climbing out of an economic recession.

Mining also generates tax revenue for state and local governments and improves economic diversity in rural communities that rely on agriculture for income. Mining companies often pay a higher price for farmland than farmers would pay.

It is difficult to stop a mining operation once it is up and running. Court rulings in Michigan have restricted municipalities from applying most zoning and other land use regulations on mining operations. 

Thus, farmers need to be careful about selling their farmland. Restrictive covenants can be imposed on the property prior to sale, and other precautions can be taken to assure that their farmland stays farmland for future generations.

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