Arcata eco-researcher links fracking sand to global warming

Natalia Nelson and her project presentation.

Natalia Nelson and her project presentation.

Undergraduate research presented at NASA environmental conference in Madrid

Natalia Nelson
Special to the Union

MADRID – As I began my walk up to the podium, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run away, weep hysterically, or throw up. I finally made it to the stage, took a deep breath, and turned to face the European Space Agency (ESA) Center conference room, packed with top-level professionals from ESA, NASA and representatives from private companies committed to sustainability. Then I had to begin talking …

But first, a little background. A Humboldt native, I was born and raised in Arcata, graduated from Arcata High in 2012, and went on to the University of California, Santa Barbara to study Environmental Science.

Currently, I am an AmeriCorps member of the Watershed Steward Program, a California Conservation Corps project committed to conserving, restoring and enhancing anadromous watersheds throughout the state.

As a senior at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), I embarked on the journey to complete an independent original research thesis – a decision that initially made me question my sanity, but ended up being one of the best decisions of my life.

With a part-time job, volunteer work and the 21-unit load in order to graduate in three years, the thesis seemed an insurmountable task (and made a serious dent in my social life).

The 114-page project consumed me and won the Distinguished Thesis Award in my department. Titled Climate Change and Hydraulic Fracturing Proppants: Calculating the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions from Silica Sand Production in Wisconsin, the thesis quantified greenhouse gas emissions released in aspects of the fracking process that have been virtually ignored as to their carbon footprint.

This research was all very exciting, but after graduation I sort of forgot about it. Then, one day I stumbled upon a call for students to present their research to NASA and the ESA in Spain and submitted my abstract with a shrug of my shoulders.

Lo and behold, a couple weeks later I got word that NASA was flying me, all expenses paid, to Madrid to present my research at the 2015 International Workshop on Environment and Alternative Energy Nov. 10 through 13. (An enthusiastic happy dance followed this news.)

The conference at the ESA Center in Madrid focused on increasing space mission ground infrastructure climate change resiliency through sustainability. There were presentations from professional scientists along with 11 other students presenting their research.

Not only was I able to tell the customs officer at the airport that the purpose of my travel was “business,” (the most adult moment of my life), but I received the opportunity to connect with top NASA and ESA professionals committed to reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. I absorbed as much knowledge as I could about topics ranging from the possibility of colonizing Mars to cleaning up space debris. I also got to exercise my tourist skills in Madrid for a few days and appreciate Spanish culture.

The American student delegation to the 2015 International Workshop on Environment and Alternative Energy in Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy Natalia Nelson

The American student delegation to the 2015 International Workshop on Environment and Alternative Energy in Madrid, Spain. Photo courtesy Natalia Nelson

Anyway, back to the story. So, there I was, shaking and stammering, presenting my undergraduate research in Madrid. After the first slide I was able to relax, make a joke, and launch in on the actual research on hydraulic fracturing proppants.

A proppant, or propping agent, is a hard, dense material used in fracking to ‘prop’ underground cracks open and let the oil or natural gas flow out and up to the surface. Each fracking well requires thousands of tons of proppant, most commonly silica sand (SiO2), so millions of tons are stuck in cracks underground and millions of tons are produced each year.

I explained that silica sand production, from mining to processing to distribution, inevitably has a large greenhouse gas footprint, but that an actual numeric value of this amount had never been calculated.

Using permit data from silica sand facilities in Wisconsin, the leading state in silica sand production, I calculated that approximately 0.15 tons of CO2 is released in the production of one ton of silica sand. (That’s about equivalent to the carbon pollution from taking your average passenger vehicle and driving it to San Francisco).

Since every single fracking well requires thousands of tons of silica sand, the emissions from the sand used per well is equivalent to driving the length of the United States about 320 times. That’s just for one hydraulic fracturing well – and there are over one million wells in the U.S. alone. (You can do the math.)

I explained to the conference that data on this subject is currently extremely difficult to come by. First of all, only 28 out of 140 active silica sand facilities in Wisconsin supplied any public data regarding their on-site greenhouse gas emissions. These facilities legally don’t have to report greenhouse gas emissions from all on-site processes, and are therefore under-reporting their data.

I suggested that a stringent, long-term monitoring processes would fill data gaps about the CO2 emissions from the silica sand life-cycle so that scientists, policy-makers and the public could make informed decisions.

In the face of climate change, a lifecycle perspective on greenhouse gas emissions is important for planning and reducing our carbon pollution. Someone might calculate the emissions of a car, for example, as the emissions driven by that car annually – but this ignores the emissions released from mining the metal for it, transporting parts all over the world, assembling the car in factories and compacting the car in a landfill. The latter approach is a lifecycle analysis, which calculates emissions from cradle-to-grave. Many scientists now recognize this, and have completed previous lifecycle analyses on hydraulic fracturing; however NONE of these assessments include the emissions from proppants, which are an inherent part of hydraulic fracturing.

I talked about how I compared my lifecycle proppant calculations to these previous studies, and found that emissions would increase by 5 to 34 percent if future fracking lifecycle analyses included emissions from proppants. If this increase was applied to every individual hydraulic fracturing well in the nation, we would see an increase CO2 calculations of millions of tons stemming from the hydraulic fracturing industry – a significant increase!

Anyway, I managed to finish the 20-minute presentation without upchucking all over the stage. After the presentation there was a casual poster session with the students when the attendees were able to mill around and ask us questions about our research. The judges analyzed our research, and it was an honor that they considered my presentation important enough to merit one of three prizes – especially since I was one of only two undergraduate students.

As if a free trip to beautiful Madrid was not enough, I received a rare NASA coin, given to people who have made a difference to NASA.

This event was huge for me for two reasons. First, I believe we need to do everything we can to drastically reduce our personal, national and global carbon footprint in order to preserve our planet and its inhabitants. I was inspired that government officials were setting such high goals of sustainability and to observe the amazing research done by students around the world.

Second, since only one-third of science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs are held by women, it was exciting to be a woman in attendance of a primarily male-dominated research field. I feel it is crucial that we empower young girls to pursue any career path that they wish and attending this workshop reinforced my hope that the field is slowly changing to reflect gender equality.

I would personally like to thank NASA and the TEERM Workshop coordinators. For more details about the workshop or to view my presentation, visit 


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  1. Brad Satchell said:

    Well don maybe one day this important information would have to be taken into account before commencement of such processes

  2. Vera Scroggins said:

    she shows how dangerous and polluting is this whole process of fracking is and includes now the sand production and use as adding to the carbon footprint…sad that this still continues while we research and data ourselves into oblivion…thanks, Natalie…

  3. Jeff Schmitt said:

    Way to go Natalia! Most of us understand the pollution caused by driving autos and the actual fracking process, but I, for one, never thought about the processes involved in making the fracking materials. Thank you for bringing this form of CO2 production to light.

  4. ben welgoed said:

    N..n, Nice Work ! I hope some organization takes you under its wing to continue spreading the word and narrowing down whatever uncertainties remain.

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