When looking at barite crystals like these, it’s hard to believe that this mineral is critical to the US economy and national security because it makes good drilling mud.
Don’t worry. Gem-quality samples are very rare and nobody grinds them up. Most barite (barium sulfate, a/k/a BaSO4) is a plain, light-colored, but unusually heavy sedimentary rock.
Barite and barium
There is a piece of barite (probably) in the following video about the element barium–a metal on the lefthand side of the periodic table, not the righthand side where aluminum, antimony, and arsenic sit. Barium gives the rock its weight.
The chemists are having fun because barium metal is explosively reactive. The “mad scientist” handles his office stone with bare hands because the metal it contains has already reacted with SO4 (a/k/a sulfate).
Paradoxically, the mineral barite is almost completely inert.
How barite is used
By the way, that chemical inertness is one of the three major reasons why barite makes good drilling mud. It doesn’t react with either the equipment or the rock formation they’re drilling. As well, it’s less likely to decompose under the rugged physical and chemical conditions inside a borehole.
Softness is barite’s second desirable property. Prospectors and energy well operators need drilling mud to cool and lubricate the drill bit, which might be a mile or more underground. This stuff has to be pumped in and out of the borehole, so it has to be made of soft materials that will flow. Again, mud that is softer than the equipment and the formation being drilled isn’t going to harm those materials.
But the biggest reason why barite is so vital to fossil fuel production is its weight. Here’s why:
Barite is so effective at this that, in late May 2018, when Hawaiian emergency management teams were having a problem plugging one of the geothermal wells threatened by Kilauea’s advancing lava flows, they used barite that had been specially shipped in from the mainland for that purpose.
And it worked! Lava covered that well, but there have been no signs of a blowout or other problem ever since.
Why barite is so important
There just aren’t many good, cost-effective natural substitutes for barite in the oil and gas industry (synthetics are only useful in certain applications, like offshore drilling).
The principal strategic concern with respect to barite is that adequate supplies be available at low cost in the geographic regions that are currently being explored for oil and gas resources and in geographic regions that will be explored in the future.
— Johnson and others (see source list)
Barite is common all over the world. The United States produced more than it consumed until 1950.
By 1980, the country was importing almost half of the barite its “oil patch” used. And then this happened (and not only in Houston):
. . . the 1980s crash remains the downturn against which all others are measured, an epic collapse that forced the region to confront its dependence on a single industry and begin a long process to diversify its economic base. Students of history can argue about which oil bust hit Houston’s energy sector harder, but there’s little debate that the 1980s collapse did far more damage to the local economy. The colossal fall in oil prices that began in 1982 and accelerated in 1986 not only sapped Houston’s wildcatter spirit, but undermined Houston’s economic foundations.
— C. Eaton (source list)
People simply stopped mining barite at that point, and while it has picked up a little since then, only a few high-grade mines in the state of Nevada are open.
In 2011, the United States imported almost 80% of the barite it used, mostly from China. That has dropped a little, to around 70% in 2017, but there are concerns both about relying on imports and on obtaining the high grade of barite needed by the fossil fuels industry.
Given how widespread this resource is, experts say that any crunches in supply or price increases would spur production in other countries such as Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, and Vietnam.
The US could reopen its barite mines or find new ones, if such a move becomes economical someday. In the meantime, it’s a wait-and-see thing. Right now, the Commerce Department is looking at what might be the best next steps to ensure an adequate supply of this strategic mineral.
Featured image: Blue barite, by Lech Darski via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.
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