Tue, Jan 03, 2017 - Page 10 News List

Cat litter helps Wyoming bentonite mining recover

AP, CHEYENNE, Wyoming

The market for a peculiar type of clay is looking up thanks to improved prospects for oil and gas drilling and to cat owners who use the stuff to soak up their pets’ business.

More than 90 percent of all bentonite mined in the US and almost half worldwide comes from beds of ancient volcanic ash in the US state of Wyoming.

Some call bentonite the mineral of 1,000 uses: It clarifies wine and other alcoholic beverages, forms an impervious liner to keep landfills from leaking, removes ink during paper recycling, and goes into a slew of homeopathic remedies.

However, two of the biggest uses are in cat litter and drilling mud, the gloop pumped down oil and gas wells during drilling to keep the bit cool and carry cuttings to the surface.

As the oil and gas industry’s fortunes rise and fall, so can bentonite’s. Over the past two years, bentonite mining companies that do a lot of business with the oilfield services industry suffered while the oil and gas industry experienced its worst slump in 20 years or more.

Now, oil and gas prices have recovered somewhat, and petroleum companies look to drill more soon.

Bentonite sales likewise show new signs of life, said Rick Magstadt, vice president of manufacturing for bentonite miner Wyo-Ben Inc.

“I’m not going to hex it by saying that I think it’s going to be a lot better, but we expect a better year than we did last year,” Magstadt said.

Bentonite assists drilling because of a property called thixotropy, which causes drilling mud to liquefy in the friction of drilling and solidify when the motion stops.

Cat litter has helped the industry ride out the oil and gas downturn, Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti said.

“The pet litter industry has been very steady,” Deti said. “That’s a remarkable thing that I don’t think people realize. We’re kind of like the pet litter capital of the world.”

Drilling mud accounts for the largest portion of Wyo-Ben’s business, while cat litter and environmental lining round out the company’s top three markets, Magstadt said.

Other bentonite mining and processing companies focus almost exclusively on cat litter, and business has been steady, said Tom Thorson, president of Black Hills Bentonite, which gets 80 to 90 percent of its business from Clorox and other companies that make cat litter.

Bentonite cat litter is not terribly kind to the environment, because it comes from surface mines and flushing the stuff, which can absorb up to 10 times its weight in water and swell up to 16 times its original size, is not a good idea. Bentonite-based litter — millions of tonnes per year — takes up space in landfills and does not decompose.

Cat owners often find that biodegradable litters, which can be quite a bit more expensive, does not work as well as bentonite-based litters, she said.

“They either don’t like them or their cats don’t like them. And so, in many cases, people will try them and then just go back to their standard, clay litter,” Brown said.

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