Barite mining grows with oil drilling boom | nnbw.com

Barite mining grows with oil drilling boom

Rob Sabo
rsabo@nnbw.biz

M-I Swaco operates a barite grinding plant at Battle Mountain that processes material from its Greystone mine in Lander County. M-I Swaco shipped 317,241 tons of barite from the plant in 2013.

The North American oil and natural gas boom is driving up barite production in Nevada.

Production of the innocuous gray rock from northeastern Nevada's eight active barite mines rose 24 percent from 2010 to 811,334 tons shipped last year, the Nevada Division of Minerals reports. Barite production increased slightly in 2012 to 744,764 tons shipped compared to 697,946 tons shipped in 2011.

Ninety-five percent of the barite mined in Nevada is used as a weighing agent for drilling fluids used in deep oil and gas exploration wells. Drilling companies mix ground barite with water to make a mud that's pumped down well holes to control gas and water pressures.

"The deeper you drill in the earth, the heavier the fluid has to be to keep the hole open as you drill," says Mike Visher, deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Minerals. "You have to combat the pressures that exists deep, and you do that by adding a heavy agent to the mud, which is barite. It holds back fluids and helps make the hole stable."

A small amount of the material also is used as a filler or weighing agent in paints, plastics and rubber production. Nevada leads the U.S. in barite production, the U.S. Geological Survey reports (a small amount of the mineral also is produced from a mine in Georgia). Much of the barite mined in Nevada is shipped by truck or rail to Colorado, and the rest is sent by rail to New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. In 2013, nine barite crushing and grinding mills sold approximately 2.6 million tons of barite to their U.S. customers, the USGS reports.

As exploration companies continue to employ deep-well hydraulic fracturing techniques to unlock oil and gas deposits miles beneath the earth's surface, demand for Nevada's barite is expected to remain high.

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"I don't see a decrease at all on the horizon," Visher says.

Barite, which contains the mineral barium sulfate, is commonly crushed and sold as powder or as fine granules. Barite looks similar to gray limestone, but it's much heavier — and that's what will keep demand high for a domestic supply of the mineral. In 2009 U.S. exploration companies imported 1.43 million metric tons of barite, mostly from China. That figure rose to 2.1 million tons in 2010 and jumped to nearly 3 million tons in 2012. Demand fell in 2013 due to possible stockpiling of barite, the USGS says.

Four companies have a presence in Nevada's barite industry: M-I Swaco operates the Greystone mine and a grinding plant at Battle Mountain; Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations operates the Argenta Mine in Lander County; National Oilwell Varco operates the Big Ledge mine and Dry Creek Jig Plant near Wells; and Halliburton operates the Rossi mine and a mill in Dunphy.

Roughly 240 full time and contract employees worked in the barite mining subsector in 2013, Visher says. The mineral sold for roughly $115 a ton, placing 2013 total production at about $94 million.

Halliburton has plans on file with the Bureau of Land Management to significantly expand its operations at the Rossi mine 50 miles northeast of Battle Mountain. Halliburton has conducted open-pit mining for barite at the Rossi mine since 1947.

The company headquartered at Houston proposes to expand open pits and dump areas at the Rossi mine, as well as construction of a new dump site and haul road. Expansion of the north dump site requires relocation of a country road to the Coyote Substation, while the new haul road would require approximately 4,100 feet of new construction. Another 14,700 feet of access road is proposed for new exploration at the site.

Halliburton says the expansion is needed due to increased demand from national and international markets for barite and the company's need to decrease its dependence on foreign supplies of the mineral. The proposed expansion would drive employment from 80 to 140 employees, Halliburton says, and extend the mine life up to 15 years in current market conditions.

2013 Nevada Barite Production

Battle Mountain Grinding Plant

Greystone Mine and Mill

Operator: M-I Swaco

Barite shipped: 317,241 tons

Rossi Mine/Dunphy Mill

Operator: Halliburton

Barite shipped: 251,329 tons

Argenta Mine and Mill

Operator: Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc.

Barite shipped: 150,802 tons

Big Ledge Mine/Dry Creek Jig Plant

Operator: National Oilwell Varco

Barite shipped: 91,962 tons

2013 barite shipped: 811,334 tons

Source: Nevada Division of Minerals

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