Editorial: Nation needs sober debate on fracking

Published 9:32 am Monday, November 4, 2013

Silica sand mining has become a growing issue in this region and for much of southeastern Minnesota as the demand for sand has exploded due to the growth of shale oil and gas drilling.

As counties and cities struggle to balance the rights of businesses to mine and residents’ concerns about mining, the state Legislature ordered the Environmental Quality Board to create a sort of best practices document to guide local governments.

The approach by the state makes sense. While some would like to see the state set stricter regulations regarding silica mining, the concerns and details of mine operations are different in each community and decisions are more appropriately a local decision. But local governments, particularly smaller towns and counties, do need the expert guidance the EQB is putting together. The final document, to be completed early next year, isn’t intended as a set of minimum standards, but rather to provide local governments with a list of proven ordinances and ideas that they can pick and choose from as they write their own ordinances for silica operations.

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The EQB was correct to slow down on creating a final document — they were initially to have a document by now — in order to get more public input. The EQB held a public meeting in Mankato last week and have more scheduled.

Those at the Mankato meeting voiced concerns about potential well problems, traffic and worries about the tiny silica particles being carried in the air. Mining companies, including the longtime UNIMIN mines near Ottawa and the new Jordan Sands company, talked about the many steps they take to minimize any problems.

The EQB document won’t settle the debate over silica mining — those opposing it will continue to fight and those who promote the economic development of it will continue to support mining. But the document will give local governments much better information as they weigh those debates.

The sand mined here is sent to other states for use in oil and gas drilling, and the issues surrounding that hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” should have a more robust debate nationally.

Fracking involves shooting silica sand and a chemical/water mixture deep into the ground to fracture rock formations, making natural gas and oil easier to extract. The potential dangers of fracking are real and serious, particularly the chemical contamination of the ground water supply. As oil exploration has exploded in recent years, so have problems. In North Dakota, more than 800,000 gallons of fracked oil spilled recently. It’s among many spills in the state, with state officials accused of covering it up in the quest to support the economic boom brought to North Dakota.

In the past, many have promoted the “drill baby, drill” mentality, arguing it’s necessary so that America isn’t dependent on Middle East fuel. But that argument has lost its punch as the United States is now the top oil and fuel supplier in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia this year.

While the mining of silica is a side issue, the problems of fracking need a much more serious look.

— Mankato Free Press, Oct. 29

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