BULCHER, Texas — Along the Red River, under the grazing cattle and the oil pumps running like metronomes, lie vast deposits of sand.
Until recently, the sand drew little interest from the mining industry. Silica, the primary component of sand, is one of the most abundant substances on the earth’s surface. But then three years ago, EOG Resources, a Houston oil and gas driller, bought more than a thousand acres near the Oklahoma border to open a sand mining operation.
The site is screened from the road by trees and hills, so locals have taken to examining it through satellite images online.
“Look at the size of it. And this was taken last year, so it’s probably a lot different now,” Jack Schoppa, a businessman in nearby Saint Jo, Texas, said as he showed a photo on his computer.
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Sand is a principal component in the hydraulic fracturing process. It has been mined in the United States in rapidly increasing volumes since the oil and gas shale boom began. From the northern banks of the Mississippi to the Red River, the flow of sand to drilling operations has created what geologists say amounts to a mining boom.
The demand for sand does not appear to be abating anytime soon.
Prices for fracking sand have been rising steadily, pushing oil and gas companies like EOG to develop their own supply.
Traditionally, drillers have demanded that sand be spherical and particularly strong, good for injecting into cracks in oil and gas shale and keeping them open under intense pressure. But the demand has become so great that many have resorted to using lesser-grade sand, said Terry Palisch, Dallas chairman of the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
“Seven or eight years ago, we were using 5 billion pounds of propellant worldwide. In 2011, it was estimated at 60 to 70 billion pounds,” he said. “When that happened and you had that gigantic increase in demand, the industry could only supply so much.”
The exact scale of the industry is unknown. But a U.S. Geological Survey study released earlier this year estimated that 47.8 million tons of sand were mined in 2011, an increase of more than 60 percent from two years earlier — and analysts say that estimate is probably sizably short of the real number.
“I think you’d have to go back to the industrial revolution to see that sort of change,” said Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association. “Horizontal drilling and shale gas has completely changed the landscape.”
And that dramatic ramping up of mining operations — which brings with it truck traffic, clouds of microscopic sand and intense water demand — has met resistance.
The bulk of the sand for hydraulic fracturing is being mined in the upper Midwest. In Minnesota, public outcry has resulted in state hearings. One case brought a county ordinance banning mining along a lakeside bluff.
Similar tension has arisen in North Texas, where residents along the Red River have been pressing state environmental regulators to block EOG’s mine from operating.
They have lobbied state and local politicians and testified at public hearings, expressing fears about heavy trucks wrecking roads and the impact the mining would have on ranchers’ water supply.
More than two years after EOG filed an application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the company still has not received an air quality permit.
A decision is not expected until this fall at the earliest. But already, officials in Cooke County, where the mine is to be located, agreed to back off if EOG installed air monitors around the site, said County Commissioner Leon Klement.
“EOG says they’ll be good neighbors. We’ll just see how it works,” he said. “It’s beyond the scope of the county to regulate sand mines. … We thought we got something out of the deal.”
The driving force behind the local opposition, a group called Save the Trinity Aquifer, declined to be interviewed for this report, citing a desire not to upset the TCEQ ahead of its decision.
But Schoppa, who does regular business with ranchers through his real estate operation, said air quality was a minor issue compared to the amount of water the sand mine was projected to pull from aquifers.
In its application, EOG estimated water use of 3,700 gallons a minute once the mine is in operation. The company declined an interview, but a page on its website said that 90 percent of the water would be “recycled and reused” and would be drawn from a deeper aquifer of brackish, undrinkable water.
But those assurances have drawn skepticism, Schoppa said.
“How is that going to work? I would like to see a well log,” he said. “This town is on well water. If those wells go dry, it’s going to be a disaster.”
But while sand mining has proved to be a volatile issue for those close to the mines, it has not attracted much attention from environmental groups.
Neil Carman, the clean-air-program director for the Texas Sierra Club, said he had heard some complaints from landowners but the environmental implications of the mines seemed relatively minimal.
“We’re looking at big power plants, refineries, and these are very small operations in comparison,” he said.