Hiking

How One Utah Group Fought Fracking—And Gained

An indication on the north finish of Kanab, Utah, proclaims the city of four,300 to be “The Biggest Earth on Present.”

It’s a uncommon case of fact in promoting.

Kanab sits simply seven miles north of the Arizona state line, on the crossroads of among the Southwest’s most stunning locations. In each route a geologic wonderland awaits. To the north is Zion Nationwide Park with its breathtaking valley of two,000-foot-tall rust and white sandstone cliffs. The sweeping expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante Nationwide Monument stretches to the east of city, and simply to the south you’ll discover the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

You don’t even want to depart Kanab, which is ringed by the famously red-hued Vermillion Cliffs, to get socked by jaw-dropping magnificence.

It’s this panorama that drew Susan Hand to Kanab 25 years in the past when she opened Willow Canyon Out of doors to promote gear, maps, books, and occasional to native and visiting adventurers. And it’s this panorama and the neighborhood’s gateway-to-the-wonderland expertise, the financial bedrock of this tourism-dependent city, that she anxious can be destroyed by a brand new industrial challenge proposed for improvement 10 miles north of city final 12 months.

Small-town Kanab. Photograph: Prayitno

There, an organization referred to as Southern Pink Sands LLC had introduced plans to construct a facility to mine and course of huge quantities of sand to be used by oil and gasoline corporations conducting hydraulic fracturing. The sand is a lesser-known however substantial facet of the fracking course of. Spherical grains of silica sand function a “proppant” to maintain underground fissures within the shale open as oil and gasoline are pumped out. Fracking a single nicely can require 1000’s of tons of sand.

“I actually wished to maintain an open thoughts, however the extra I realized concerning the challenge, the extra involved I acquired,” Hand advised The Revelator once I visited Kanab in September.

She had motive to be anxious. The primary decade of the fracking increase relied closely on so-called “frac sand” sourced largely from Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, the place mining diminished verdant inexperienced hills to piles of mud.

However mining within the Midwest has its limits. Sand is dear to ship throughout the nation, in order fracking has taken off in Utah, Texas and New Mexico, corporations have appeared to search out extra native sources to trim prices.

That’s when the proposed mine in Kanab entered the story.

Southern Pink Sands, a two-person start-up backed by Utah real-estate developer Kem Gardner, hoped to determine the area’s subsequent frac sand mine in a scenic space of state-owned lands exterior Kanab referred to as Pink Knoll.

Metropolis and county officers rapidly gave their blessing — and a mixed 1,200 acre-feet of water rights a 12 months — after solely cursory consideration.

However residents turned involved about impacts to scenic magnificence, water sources, and native companies. They teamed as much as combat again, forming a neighborhood group referred to as Hold Kanab Unspoiled.

It was starting to really feel like a well-recognized story.

The wrestle between extractive industries and environmental safety isn’t a brand new one in Utah. A combat continues to be raging close by over the boundaries of Bears Ears Nationwide Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante, each of which President Trump slashed in an effort to improve drilling and mining alternatives.

Regardless of public pushback and a few authorized challenges, although, the frac sand mine gave the impression to be cruising towards approval as lately as October. It nonetheless wanted an environmental affect evaluation from the Bureau of Land Administration, and the 2 water transfers wanted approval from the state engineer. The challenge undoubtedly wasn’t a carried out deal, however in industry-friendly Utah, it had shot.

So it might have come as a shock to plenty of residents when Southern Pink Sands introduced in the beginning of January that it was abandoning the proposed challenge.

What occurred? And are there any classes that different communities combating extraction threats can study?

“Converse out, pull collectively like-minded neighbors, arrange and don’t quit,” Hand advised me after listening to the information. “But in addition, attempt to be good.”

Surprisingly, it’s that final bit that will have made a giant distinction — together with arduous take a look at the economics of the endeavor.

The Fracking Risk

Von Del Chamberlain is a white-haired, soft-spoken Kanab resident. Born in 1934, he spent his youth exploring the crimson rock and his profession finding out the celebs. The astronomer and former director of Salt Lake Metropolis’s Hansen (now Clark) Planetarium retired to his hometown 15 years in the past and hoped to start out a public observatory.

He realized that Kanab’s prized dark-night skies can be threatened by a 24-7 mining operation. However that wasn’t even his largest concern with the challenge.

“The sweetness right here is the factor that can maintain this space economically for as far sooner or later as we will presumably see,” he mentioned.

Opponents like Chamberlain normally cited two massive issues: environmental impacts, significantly the menace to water sources, and the native economic system. However in Kanab it’s arduous to separate the 2.

“It doesn’t matter what sort of an economic system you need to develop right here,” mentioned Hand. “Even when you have an industrial economic system or an extractive economic system — should you don’t have water, you’re out.”

The water provide, which attracts on underground aquifers, presently helps the city’s tourist-driven economic system, ranching, and the county’s largest employer — Finest Mates Animal Society, recognized worldwide by way of the Dogtown TV collection on the Nationwide Geographic Channel. The nonprofit owns a three,700-acre sanctuary, the nation’s largest no-kill animal shelter, and would have been the mine’s closest neighbor.

The Finest Mates Animal Sanctuary. Photograph: Becker1999

Finest Mates, which employs 400 locals and attracts 35,000 out-of-town guests a 12 months to its sanctuary, got here to see the proposed mine as an existential menace. Their property depends on wells, seeps and comes that come from the identical aquifer the challenge’s two wells would faucet.

Final July Kanab’s metropolis council accredited a 50-year contract for 600 acre-feet a 12 months of water rights for the challenge and Kane County Water Conservancy District, which oversees water servicing for the unincorporated areas of the county, agreed to offer a further 600 acre-feet of water. That mixed quantity equals about 740 gallons per minute, though Southern Pink Sands contended it will use solely a few third of that.

Many native residents had been shocked by the water-rights switch. A 2016 water wants evaluation discovered that Kane County Water Conservancy District’s dependable provide can be in deficit by 2035. And the district’s government director, former state consultant Mike Noel, has been a vocal advocate for a pricy proposed pipeline to ship Lake Powell water to southern Utah communities, together with close to Kanab, beneath the premise that the area is already working quick on water.

“We knew that it will harm our seeps and our springs, and we weren’t positive but the total affect in addition to some drawdown to our groundwater, however we had been actually involved,” Bart Battista, an environmental engineer answerable for services administration at Finest Mates’ Kanab sanctuary, advised me. “It boggles my thoughts that town wasn’t as involved.”

However paperwork unearthed by native radio station KUER confirmed that officers at close by Zion Nationwide Park already had been involved that the challenge may scale back flows into the East Fork of the Virgin River, which flows by way of the park, by decreasing the quantity of water from underground seeps and comes that feed the river.

Desirous to study extra about how the challenge may have an effect on the area’s water, Finest Mates commissioned a examine from hydrogeologist Kenneth Kolm of Hydrologic Methods Evaluation, a agency that’s accomplished water research for different Utah cities.

Kolm discovered that the mine posed the potential for decline in productiveness to wells owned by each Finest Mates and town’s water provide. The challenge may additionally lower flows into close by Kanab Creek and dry up perennial streams and comes, together with one which feeds an space of habitat that’s dwelling to the Kanab ambersnail — presently federally protected as endangered.

The quantity of water being withdrawn wasn’t the one challenge. The proposed challenge web site and its sandy soil are additionally vitally necessary to native hydrology.

“The sand is the primary ticket to amassing water,” mentioned Hand. It captures rain and holds it in place lengthy sufficient for it to sink into the water desk and never run off. However the sand is precisely what can be faraway from the location, additional threatening the area’s water provide.

“I noticed for the primary time how small and susceptible our watershed truly is,” she added.

Southern Pink Sands hoped to start out digging on 640 acres of land round Pink Knoll, an aptly title rise of coral-colored rock and sand. The world is managed as a part of Utah’s Faculty and Worldwide Belief Lands Administration (SITLA), the place state-owned property might be leased (typically for useful resource extraction), with income being funneled to training.

The operation would have began by bulldozing all of the timber, shrubs, grasses and forbs, then scraped as much as 30 ft of the earth from the uncovered floor. The sand would then be processed — washed with water and chemical substances, then dried and sorted — in a facility with as much as six 120-foot-tall silos. After that it will be loaded into vans and hauled out.

A small fraction of the remaining sediment — largely the advantageous silts and clays — can be put again on the land. However that change in geology may imply a giant change for the aquifer. How massive would depend upon the scope of the challenge, although.

Along with the SITLA land, Southern Pink Sands had acquired placer claims — mineral exploration rights — for 12,000 surrounding acres managed by the BLM. And though the corporate mentioned it deliberate to mine solely 700,000 tons a 12 months from the SITLA property, the power would have had the capability and water rights to accommodate way more.

“In the event that they’re constructing a plant with a capability of three million tons a 12 months, that’s presumably as a result of they anticipate to have the ability to produce that,” Dean Baker, a Kanab resident and opponent of the challenge advised me in December. “They could by no means try this, however you don’t construct additional capability with out the concept that you would possibly use it.”

Resistance to Fracking

Water points are paramount in arid Utah, however the mine was prone to include another potential issues.

If Southern Pink Sands did construct out to finish of their claims, they’d be inside 10 miles of Zion Nationwide Park and employees at Finest Mates can be trying over their fence line on the operation — to not point out doubtlessly respiration its mud.

Mining, processing and trucking frac sand can launch tiny particles of crystalline silica into the air. Inhaling these particles recurrently may cause lung illness, together with most cancers and silicosis, a persistent illness that, like “black lung” for coal miners, might be lethal.

The ability would probably run with lights and noise 24-7, which might be detrimental to wildlife. And including extra diesel-spewing, slow-stopping massive rigs hauling 50,000 kilos of sand down the city’s one fundamental highway involved residents, too.

With a lot in danger, opponents employed plenty of techniques to attempt to combat the mine.

Hold Kanab Unspoiled held neighborhood conferences. They invited Kolm, the geologist who did the impartial examine, to report his findings, and began an internet petition to discourage the corporate from shifting ahead.

Finest Mates — a longtime nationwide nonprofit with significantly extra monetary sources — took the lead position in mounting authorized challenges. The group filed an enchantment of a conditional use allow accredited by the county and formally objected to the water transfers, which wanted to be accredited by the state engineer.

However through the fall, Finest Mates determined to shift techniques. Lawsuits may simply result in years of authorized battles, one thing past the group’s longstanding mission.

“We would alienate our donors and members,” Battista defined. “The enchantment of Finest Mates crosses celebration boundaries — animal welfare is one thing all people can assist.” Apparently environmental motion isn’t.

They determined one of the best strategy was to sit down down and speak with the corporate and its backers.

Battista couldn’t disclose particulars of the negotiations — which went on for months — however on Jan. 9 Finest Mates and Southern Pink Sands launched a joint assertion saying that the corporate “had determined to not pursue its enterprise ventures in Kane County.”

The members of Hold Kanab Unspoiled had been elated by the information.

“It’s so heartening how so many individuals from our neighborhood got here collectively to amplify a voice that’s seldom acknowledged by our elected representatives and establishments,” Hand tells me. “I’m relieved that an space I like gained’t be sacrificed on the altar of fossil gas consumption. I’m grateful that this menace to our journey and tourism economic system is diminished.”

It might be comforting to suppose that the driving pressure behind the choice boiled all the way down to preserving the scenic magnificence or the area’s groundwater sources, however it’s extra probably it needed to do with cash.

“Economics performed some position,” Battista mentioned. “The marketplace for frac sand has modified and [Best Friends] had monetary viability assessments of the challenge to point out that the mine wouldn’t be a good suggestion. Economically it simply didn’t make sense to any of us. I feel that our research corroborated that.”

This was a fundamental speaking level of Hold Kanab Unspoiled, bolstered by analysis carried out by Baker, who additionally occurs to be an economist and cofounder of the Heart for Financial and Coverage Analysis.

The frac sand — and the bigger fracking — is risky. The variety of rigs drilling for oil tends to fall when costs get low. Rigs plunged with falling costs from 2014 to 2016 and final 12 months noticed report declines in rig numbers. As well as, fracking prices greater than conventional drilling — and the has additionally been overspending to maintain the fracking increase from going bust.

A analysis group in Norway discovered that the amount of cash being spent to drill for oil by 40 U.S. shale oil corporations outpaced the cash being made by promoting that oil. That deficit price corporations virtually $5 billion in simply the primary quarter of 2019, DeSmog reported in August.

It’s a state of affairs that’s occurred earlier than.

With oil costs now round $60 a barrel, the is hanging on. If costs dip a lot decrease, it might be hassle. A decade into the fracking frenzy, traders are anxious that one of the best spots have been drilled and plenty of money owed gained’t be paid.

There’s much more uncertainty relating to producing and promoting the sand. Firms used to rely virtually completely on Midwest sand, however now extra areas are getting in on the sport.

The implications of failures within the fracking enterprise mannequin are actual.

Falling oil costs and a shifting marketplace for frac sand lately took down Emerge Power Providers — proprietor of eight frac sand services in Wisconsin — which filed for chapter final summer time and left behind unsafe ranges of arsenic and heavy steel contamination for the neighborhood to scrub up.

Grand Staircase-Escalante Nationwide Monument, Kanab. Photograph: Patrick Hendry

That’s a state of affairs that Baker anxious may occur in Kanab. Southern Pink Sands mentioned their supposed market was in Utah’s Uintah Basin 350 miles north, however a brand new frac sand mine simply opened within the basin. “It’s virtually inconceivable they’d be capable of compete with them as a result of the most important price with frac sand is the delivery,” mentioned Baker. “There are some operations within the San Juan basin [in New Mexico and Colorado] however it’s not clear to me that they might beat these out both.”

Though economics performed a job in halting the challenge, he believes neighborhood efforts had been necessary, too.

“The actual fact they confronted severe authorized obstacles at each step of their path needed to be an element,” he mentioned. “It’s a good, and sadly uncommon, victory for the atmosphere.”

Finest Mates labored to make sure the hard-earned victory wasn’t short-lived, both. It additionally bought Southern Pink Sands’ 12,000 acres of mineral rights.

“We need to guarantee that nobody else is available in right here in two years if the market’s higher and tries to place in one other sand mine, we simply don’t suppose that it’s the best factor for this space,” says Battista. “We need to guarantee that in perpetuity, there’s not a menace to the sanctuary.”

As for Hand, she’s now trying on the larger image. She noticed the combat over frac sand in Kanab as a microcosm of the worldwide combat over fossil fuels and local weather change.

“Whereas we will embrace a way of triumph, it’s prone to be temporary,” she says. “Relating to defending wild locations and utilizing our sources rigorously, our work won’t ever be carried out. The following improvement challenge is already effervescent. I do really feel extra eager for every success, however local weather change marches on.”

This piece first appeared at The Revelator.

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