The Fracking Fracas

Jim Tittle admits he had never heard of frac sand mining until 2011 when an oil company bought a 150-acre cornfield next to his mother’s property in rural Red Wing, Minn., for $2.6 million, many times its assessed value.

“We’re in a recession and it sells for three to four times what the land is worth,” Tittle said by telephone while returning to his native Minnesota after screening his frac sand mining documentary The Price of Sand at The Wild & Scenic Film Festival, held in Nevada City, Calif, Jan. 9-12.

Turns out an energy corporation owned by a hedge fund had bought the land.

“They want to build an open pit sand mine,” Tittle said.

And that’s what turned a cameraman – if you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel’s MonsterQuest, you’ve seen Tittle’s work, but he also does a lot of corporate work – into a director.

“At the heart of it all is the fact that my mother would be living next to a frac sand mine,” he said about his decision to make The Price of Sand. “I just kind of felt like, no, she loves her house. Her neighbors love their houses. And this is the wrong thing to do here. So that’s how it all started.”

Opposition to the proposed frac sand mine in Goodhue County, Minn., became fodder for Tittle’s camera.

“I was pretty concerned, so I started making YouTube videos,” he said. “I started making these short, fast YouTube videos.”

And people were watching.

“I got about 10,000 hits on those YouTube videos. At that point, I thought I should make a long-form film.”

He already had the cameras and editing equipment, but he’d still need money for food, gas, hotels and whatever else it took to visit some of the frac sand mining areas of western Wisconsin. He figured $5,600 would do it, so he decided to crowdsource the movie idea and try to raise $5,600 from strangers over the internet in 56 days.

“As it turns out, I raised $6,800,” he said.

He visited the areas affected by the frac sand mining boom in western Wisconsin and saw lives uprooted.

“I’ve gone to a lot of different mine sites and talked to a lot of people, and there is a huge amount of truck traffic. It destroys roads. People have gone from living in rural areas to having super highways in front of their farms. It’s pretty awful. Nasty stuff.”

The faces you won’t see in Tittle’s film are those of the frac sand mining industry. They wouldn’t allow him to visit a frac sand mine or interview any company officials. So he improvised for shots of the mines by finding a willing pilot.

“I attached a $300 GoPro action camera to the belly of the airplane and that’s how we got the aerials,” Tittle said.

The proposed frac sand mine next to his mother has not happened because Goodhue County instituted a moratorium on frac sand mining. Although Minnesota sits on the same type of sought-after silica for use in hydraulic fracking in the oil and natural gas industry, it has been more cautious than its neighbor to the east about granting access.

Tittle was particularly aghast at Wisconsin Senate Bill 349, which appears to have been largely written by the frac sand mining industry and, among other things, removes control of air and water regulation from local municipalities in favor of making the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources a one-stop shop for all industry regulation.

“That is diabolical. It is just absolutely diabolical,” Tittle said. “The legislative process in your state is terrifying. You go around Wisconsin and you meet people who think things through and they don’t think money first. But the Wisconsin government doesn’t really reflect that.”

Tittle will be the first to tell you that his film is opinionated.

“It shows my opinion, and my opinion is there are a lot of bad things about frac sand mining,” he said.

But he is also a realist.

“We’re not going to stop it. We just have to make it reasonable,” Tittle said. “Anonymous investors at a distance are saying we want a certain rate of return on our dollar. Whatever you have to do. And that’s how it’s being done. If they made themselves more accountable and more concerned about communities, they could still get sand. It might cost more, but they can get what’s needed. It’s about huge profits.”

The Price of Sand will be shown at the UU Fellowship in Ephraim on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 4:30 pm.