Proposed quarry looks to mine fracking sand near Dinosaur

Uinta Basin drillers get most of their sand from Wisconsin. Playa Sand Project hopes to be a nearby source.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The site of a proposed quarry near Vernal, just west of Dinosaur National Monument, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, where the Playa Sand Project would produce sand for use in fracking operations in the Uinta Basin.

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A quarry has been proposed on public land in Utah’s Uinta Basin just outside Dinosaur National Monument, where operators hope to extract sand for use in the oil and gas industry’s fracking operations.

For years, the basin’s drillers have imported sand from Wisconsin, which produces sand granules of the right size and shape for use in the fluids used to fracture hydrocarbon-bearing formations. The sand is a critical component of fracking, propping open cracks in the rock after the fracking fluid is extracted. These openings allow hydrocarbons to flow into the well bores, greatly increasing production.

Now nearby sources of sand are under development, including the Playa Sand Project, hardly 1.5 miles from Dinosaur’s western boundary where a Colorado-based LLC called Leverite holds mining claims on 393 acres of public land, according to a “scoping notice” posted Wednesday by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM has initiated an environmental review of the project off Bean Draw Road, about 10 miles east of Vernal.

While close to Dinosaur, the mine would have little effect on monument visitors, according to Greg Hunt, a principal of Leverite LLC, based in Cedaredge, Colorado.

“The project is not visible from any trail or road in the monument,” Hunt said. “I think the monument is pretty comfortable with that. The only way you could see it is if you get on top of the highest peak in the monument. The proximity is not an issue.”

The mine site, however, is visible from Black Mountain, a hiking destination on the north side Split Mountain, according to Dan Johnson, the monument’s chief of interpretation.

“It’s a route, not an established trail. You would see it from there which is in our recommended wilderness boundary,” Johnson said. “We have to take a closer look at the proposal. We will look at light pollution, noise, things that lead to impacts inside the monument.”

Not far away, the RMEX Mine is already producing frac sand on private land midway between Red Fleet and Steinaker reservoirs, north of Vernal.

In 2019, this quarry, operated by Wisconsin-based Ramsey Hill Exploration just off U.S. Highway 191, began supplying Uinta Basin drillers with their first locally produced frac sand. The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) recently issued a new permit for the company to mine on 75 acres for the next five years, and then expand to 211 acres.

Last year, Ramsey Hill produced 500,000 tons of sand just as Utah’s oil and gas industry was emerging from the pandemic-driven collapse in energy prices, according to records on file with DOGM. Drilling activity fell silent in 2020, but today there are as many as 12 drill rigs operating in the basin.

A single horizontal well bore can use up to 50 rail carloads of sand, so the coming demand for sand could be huge, especially if the proposed oil-hauling Uinta Basin Railway is built. That 85-mile railroad is expected to enable a three-to-four-fold increase in the basin’s oil production, which is currently constrained by transportation bottlenecks.

But drillers can’t use just any sand for fracking. The granules must meet certain specifications for size, roundness and hardness. Deposits of sand meeting these required characteristics have apparently been located in the badlands east of Vernal, prompting Leverite to secure federal mining claims that would be tapped in the latest project.

Reached Friday, Hunt declined to go into the specifics of the project.

To be developed by a company called Uinta Basin Sand LLC, the Playa Sand Project could be operating as soon as the end of this year. The company would construct 7,700 feet of roads within the project areas, according to the BLM’s scoping notice, which provides few details.

Roadways would be sited to avoid disturbing known sage grouse habitat and fossil resources. Mining would occur year-round, although activity would be limited to daylight hours. The mine would excavate on 20 acres at a time, reclaiming the pit as mining proceeds.

Noting that his company would not be operating the mine, Hunt said he did not know how much sand the mine would produce each year or how many people it would employ.

Efforts to identify Uinta Basin Sand LLC’s current principals were not successful. The company is registered to a Naples, Florida, address used by coal mining executive Robert Nead. Reached Friday, Nead said he is not involved in the Uinta Basin sand mine, but declined to identify anyone who is.

The BLM is accepting public comments through Aug. 26 and will host an open house for the project Aug. 10 at Vernal’s Uintah Conference Center from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The agency expects to issue a decision in September.