One company has revealed plans to mine sand in the Northern Territory, with the aim of selling it to gas companies wishing to fracture in the Beetaloo Basin.
- In addition to its frac sand mining plan, the company has also identified sand that could be used in the production of solar panels.
- An environmental group is concerned about the company’s water extraction plans
- The DEPWS says that around a third of the water allocated under existing rights in the area was withdrawn in accounting year 2021/22
Territory Sands says it has identified a 110 million-tonne sand resource near the small town of Larrimah, which it believes could be used to fracture gas wells.
To fracture a well, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pushed down under high pressure to break up rocks deep underground and release the gas.
For the few wells that have been fracked in the Beetaloo Basin as part of exploration, sand was brought in from South Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Territory Sands director Nigel Doyle said he has been in talks with three of the four gas companies exploring at Beetaloo with the aim of becoming the first local supplier of frac sand to the industry.
“On the first years, [the gas industry might need] 100,000 to 200,000 tons of sand per year,” he said.
“But possibly by the end of the decade, it could need one to two million tons of sand per year.
“Our homes are not approved yet… but we hope that by next year we can supply a local source of sand.”
To produce frac sand, the sand will need to be washed with water. Territory Sands expects it to come from the Tindall (Mataranka) limestone aquifer.
The company has applied for a license to extract up to 1,200 megaliters a year from the aquifer.
“We think in the first year or two we’re only going to use 5 to 10 percent of that app,” Doyle said.
Water use concerns
The NT Environment Center has raised concerns that the Territory Sands water application is being assessed under dryland standards, which allow more water to be drawn from an aquifer assessed under Top End standards.
“We’re very concerned about whether there really is enough water to supply this industry,” said Kirsty Howey, co-director of the NT Environment Center.
“We believe that, taken cumulatively with other potential licenses in that area that are under development, this could mean quite significant impacts on ecosystems that depend on groundwater, such as the Mataranka hot springs and the Roper River.
“We know that in this region of the aquifer recharge is very episodic, so there is a real risk that if you take out more water than is actually being replenished … then you are embarking on water withdrawal, which by definition It’s unsustainable.”
The Department of Environment, Parks and Water Safety (DEPWS) said that, based on available scientific research, it concluded that the aquifer could be classified as an arid zone.
“These rules mean you can draw 0.8 percent of the total initial storage volume each year for 100 years,” a DEPWS statement said.
“This does not take into account the large but infrequent recharge events that occur every few years on average, meaning that while water is being withdrawn, water is also being added to the aquifer during these recharge events.
“Decisions in areas like Mataranka are also based on protecting values such as springs and ensuring that drinking water is protected as a priority.”
Existing groundwater rights in the area total 31,768 megaliters per year, with 9,776 megaliters used in the 2021/22 water accounting year, according to DEPWS.
Glass, panels and chips
Territory Sands is also exploring for silica sand at Newcastle Waters Station, which could be used in the production of glass, solar panels and silicon computer chips.
“We think [the resource] it’s quite extensive, it could be billions of tons,” Doyle said.
“We have an exploration program planned for the next few months and we will be looking for the sand closest to the surface and of the highest quality.”
In March, the federal government added silica to its list of critical minerals, highlighting it as a priority for project facilitation and government investment.
Mr. Doyle says that if his company starts mining for silica sand, it is likely to be exported to Asia, where the product is in high demand.
“It would be nice to have a solar panel manufacturing plant in Australia so we don’t have to import panels from China,” he said.
“We have the raw materials in Western Australia, Queensland and the NT…but a lot of the smaller companies looking for silica sand can’t export because many of Australia’s ports are full.”
The NT Environment Center has requested that the Territory Sands mine plans undergo full environmental impact assessments before approval.