In Wisconsin, we have no oil or natural gas resources. Most people consider our natural resource to be the rolling green fields we that cover in cattle (Well, usually they are green- this summer they are brown and the farmers are struggling, but more on that later.) However, beneath many of these usually green fields, lies Wisconsin’s newest natural resource- sand.
Here in the scenic region that inspired naturalist Aldo Leopold to write his famous book, A Sand County Almanac , west central Wisconsin sits on sandy soil. The sand found here is especially strong, fine-grained, and round. It’s the perfect place to find the sand needed in large quantities for unconventional natural gas drilling, also known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The sand grains prop open cracks in the rock so that the gas can flow out. When this controversial drilling technique expanded to gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale below Pennsylvania and the Bakken Shale below North Dakota, the demand for the Wisconsin’s superior sand skyrocketed.
Five years ago, just a handful of companies were operating industrial sand mines in Wisconsin, serving both foundry and oil and gas needs. Sand has always been used in oil and gas wells, but the hydraulic fracturing technique requires more more sand, and finer sand, that traditional oil or gas wells. The boom in hydraulic fracturing led to a boom in demand for sand. Over the past few years, the applications for new sand mining and processing operations have poured into rural western Wisconsin.
For my internship with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism this summer, I’ve been reporting on the implications of this rapidly growing industry in Wisconsin. Will sand mining bring jobs and economic growth or environmental damage? Both? Will the exponential growth continue or will the demand disappear as quickly as it arrived? Is sand mining a necessary byproduct of our continued need for fossil fuels and a step toward energy independence? Will the increased truck traffic and industrial noise ruin the peace and quiet that draws many people to visit or move to western Wisconsin?
Well, I can’t tell you all the answers now. Sorry. But, my first feature story on the industry will be published on Sunday, included a map of all the facilities in the state and photos from a sand mine we toured. If I peaked your interest, you can check it out here (on or after July 22) More stories, focused on specific issues like economics or local governmental regulations, will hopefully follow.