Sand mining and fracking

Standing on a beach, the sand seems infinite but it’s being mined at an alarming rate to make concrete. Standing on the edge of an open pit sand mine used for fracking is hazardous and the pit is an ugly scar on the earth.

sand

Sand is necessary for fracking. Once the shale deposits are fractured under high pressure, sand holds the pores open to allow oil or natural gas to flow.

Fracking operations have been suspended as cheap oil floods the market. But fracking will be back and so will the need for frac sand. When that happens, the B.C. Liberals will once again be flogging international markets with our natural gas under the pretence that it’s a clean fuel.

As it is, B.C.’s frac sand must be brought in from other provinces at a cost of $250 to $300 a tonne. Since single fracked well can use 10,000 tonnes, it’s obvious that oil and gas companies would like to have frac sand closer to home.

Not any sand will do; not what you’d find on a beach says Sean Cockerham of McClatchy News:

“Rounded quartz sand is needed because it’s strong enough to handle the pressure and depths involved in fracking. Beach sand is too angular and full of impurities.”

Descriptions for frac sand take on the connoisseurs’ appreciation of the soil for fine wine: the terroir of a particular region’s climate and soils that affect the taste of wine. The “Northern White” sand of Wisconsin is excellent for fracking. The hickory, or brown, sand of Central Texas is less desirable but has the benefit of being close to the home of the best oil and gas fields in the U.S.

Unlike the making of fine wine, the landscape is destroyed in the extraction of fine frac sand. Not only have that, but the piles of sand present a health hazard that’s worsened as a result of the slowdown in fracking says Ryan Schuessler for Aljazeera. Victoria Trinko lives one-half kilometer away from one of these drifting piles of sand.

“’That particular mine started in July 2011,’ Trinko, 69, said. ‘By April of the next year, I had developed a raspy voice. I was wheezing. Sore throat.’ She said her doctor later diagnosed her with asthma resulting from her environment. Her cows have started coughing, too, she said.”

What’s blowing in the wind is c, released into the air during frac sand mining. The mining company is supposed to keep the sand piles damp to keep it from blowing away but with the slowdown, maintenance is not profitable. Silica is a carcinogen and can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to death.

Stikine Energy Corp. of Vancouver thinks it’s found a solution to B.C.’s frac sand problem. Stikine president Scott Broughton says his company has discovered very promising deposits, large enough to support open pit mining. Despite the slowdown, the deposits 90 kilometres north of Prince George are still listed in B.C.’s major project website, waiting to be mined.

The dangers of frac sand should be another nail in the coffin of fracking but once the price of oil soars, watch for a resurrection.

Advertisements

Renewable energy welcomes the Alberta NDP

Big Oil might be quivering in their boots at the prospect of having to pay fair royalty rates to the province but the renewable energy sector is looking forward to the NDP in Alberta.

oraange

Fossil fuels have had a grip on the province that stifles energy innovation. Renewal energy companies are feeling more optimistic with the NDP. Despite much talk by the previous government, not much happened.

“For six or seven years, the previous government had white papers and round tables,” said Kent Brown, president of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables Inc. “We were caught in the uncertainty and lack of decision making. The new government has a great opportunity to make some decisions now.”

One of the things holding back the development of renewable energy has been slavish devotion to the marketplace. Yes, free markets are great at determining the price of shoes but energy is a different matter.

Under Alberta’s deregulated electricity market, utilities have no incentive to develop renewable energy says Jared Donald, president of Conergy in Calgary. In Alberta’s energy market, customers get to choose which electricity utilities they want to buy from. With twice as many marketers as there are utilities, there’s no lack of choice. Albertan’s generally select the cheapest utility.

That’s fine for buying shoes as long as the shoes are not choking the atmosphere and threatening the planet. Fossil fuels are not like other consumer items. Alberta currently uses coal for 43 per cent of its electricity and natural gas for 40 per cent.

Jared Donald told the business section of the Globe and Mail that one crucial change the new government could make would be a shift away from the fully deregulated electricity market. Power producers charge fluctuating prices depending on supply and demand at any particular moment. This leaves utilities stuck on fossil fuels.

Deregulated fossil fuel energy means there is little incentive to build anything but the cheapest source, usually new natural gas-fired power plants. Solar, wind and hydro plants have greater up-front costs, and are thus harder to finance under the current regime, even though they require no fuel once they are complete.

“If you are uncertain about what the energy market is going to be, you don’t spend the big capital dollars up front,” Jared Donald. That provides an “incentive to make short-sighted decisions.” It will take government intervention to change the pricing and financing of electricity generation to encourage renewables, he added.

The wind energy industry, too, is keen on expanding in Alberta, but it also has issues with the market pricing of electricity said Tim Weis from the Edmonton-based Canadian Wind Energy Association.

One solution would be for the province to set a “clean electricity standard,” that would force power retailers to sign contracts with some renewable suppliers.

As the province with the youngest population in Canada, Albertans are ready for innovation. Cogeneration plants now produce 31% of needs. While they still use fossil fuels they also use biomass, such as livestock manure, to simultaneously generate both electricity and steam for industrial process. Cogeneration substantially reduces net greenhouse gas emissions.