The economic benefits and costs of frac sand mining in Western Wisconsin

A new technology to extract oil and natural gas from geological formations that lack the porosity to allow the oil and natural gas to flow into drilled wells has dramatically increased oil and natural gas production in the United States. Horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of the rock requires that material be injected into the fractured rock to “prop” it open. Sand of the right size, shape, and strength is one of the “proppants” used in oil and gas fracking. Wisconsin has substantial deposits of such “frac-sand.” The boom in the fracking activity of oil and gas companies has created a boom in the demand for frac-sand, including Wisconsin’s.

Frac-sand production, like almost all surface mining and ore processing, involves significant land disturbance and the potential to cause air and water pollution among other environmental problems. That has confronted citizens and local elected officials in west central Wisconsin with a familiar but difficult choice: mining, processing, and transporting the sand promises economic benefits for some parts of the population while imposing business, environmental, and social costs, on other parts of the population. Citizens and elected officials have to evaluate the mix of benefits and costs and their distribution over the short term and long term to make an informed decision as to what is best for their community.