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Good, bad or, well, just news: State's sand is fit for fracking

Minnesota may not be sitting on the Bakken shale, but we do have a seat in the second row of the fracking controversy. Fracking, of course, is short-hand for hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract oil and natural gas from shale deposits.

Fracking is the key to horizontal drilling: Once the well is in place, a mixture composed mainly of water and sand is injected into the shale at very high pressure. Cracks form in the shale, and the water drains out. The sand, however -- some of it from Minnesota sand pits -- stays put to keep the cracks from sealing and, so, to allow the mining operation to harvest the gas as it escapes.

Environmentalists claim that fracking does more harm than good. The unintended consequences, they say, include earthquakes, fouled aquifers and general degradation of the Earth's crust -- all that stuff sitting right under farmland, houses and other trappings of society, including undeveloped lands that host delicate and irreplaceable ecosystems. Environmentalists are also concerned about the storage of the "used" fracking fluid.

What does this have to do with us? While mining companies used to be interested in Minnesota for its ore deposits, nowadays they are more interested in our sand pits. 

Minnesota is not new to the sand industry, but fracking and the explosion of activity at the Bakken shale and elsewhere in the country increased demand -- and opportunities for existing businesses and entrepreneurs alike. A Houston County company formed in 2012 was looking into consolidating 11 sand mine operations in the state to supply "frac sand" to mining companies.

Before the new venture could do anything, though, it needed to submit a combined environmental impact statement to the state's Environmental Quality Board. The company "dragged its feet," according to a Houston County official, leaving the individual operations hanging.

As a result, one of them, Erickson Mine, has severed ties with the larger operation, according to the mine owner. Environmentalists reacted to the announcement with skepticism, offering an implied, "Sure you have."

We'll explain more and discuss Erickson's permit issues in our next post.

Source: Winona Post, "Houston sand mine appeal denied," Chris Rogers, June 25, 2014

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