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.

The mines that fracking built

Keith Fossen never expected to join a grassroots environmental group, let alone help organize one from the ground up.

“I was so far over there on the conservative side … whenever I heard of anyone trying to do something for the environment, I was suspicious,” Fossen said during an interview with Truthout. “I thought anything environmental was trying to control business.”

Fossen and his wife Amy Nelson live in rural Hay Creek Township located about 10 miles from the Mississippi River on the outskirts of Red Wing, Minnesota. Fossen is an entrepreneur and CEO of a business education services firm.

For years, he agreed with other conservatives that environmental causes were bad for business. His tune began to change, however, as the frack-sand rush started knocking on his back door.

Vinehout faces uphill battle on sand mines

Imagine if you owned a home on some land in the beautiful coulee country of southwestern Wisconsin only to learn that a frac sand mine is planned for property adjacent to yours.

Likely, a huge mining operation will be your new neighbor. Your property value is going to plummet, to say nothing of your quality of life. Current state law basically says, “Tough luck, buddy.”

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout lives in Alma, in the heart of frac sand country. She hears a constant stream of concerns about the impacts of frac sand mining on communities and people in her district. Vinehout has proposed a modest set of bills addressing these concerns. She’s hoping to get a hearing on the bills.

Find out more fromthis article by Bill Berry.