Wisconsin may forever be known as “America’s Dairyland,” but a perhaps a secondary title could be “America’s Sandbox,” because Wisconsin is home to the finest and most economically valuable sand in the world.
I’m not talking about Wisconsin’s beach sand, but rather its silica, or “frac” sand, which is mined from sediment beneath the surface of western and central Wisconsin. The sand is used as a key ingredient in the energy sector’s latest breakthrough innovation: high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing.
This new technology involves pumping water, chemical additives, and sand deep into underground formations at high pressure to create fractures; once the fluid is removed, the sand is left behind to hold the fractures open, allowing gas to flow to the surface for collection. The process takes about three to five days and is an important part of the overall drilling process that can produce cheap, high-density energy for decades.
This technology has led to an especially large boom in natural gas production, which emits just over half the carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour as coal, and is rapidly displacing its use while creating millions of jobs. According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, natural gas development supported one million U.S. jobs in 2010 and is expected to support 1.5 million in 2015. Unfortunately, U.S. production of frac sand has failed to meet this growing demand, forcing developers to import a more expensive ceramic material from China.
More of that money could be going to Wisconsin and creating jobs in the struggling west and central regions of the state, but anti-mining groups are pressuring local governments to prevent any expansion of sand mining activity.
In July, for example, the Buffalo County board voted to deny a Menomonie-based mining company a permit to build a mine in the town of Montana. Although the company can reapply when the county’s moratorium expires at the end of this month, the county is being pressured to extend the moratorium to 2014, to allow time for an air quality study.
But just this past January the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources completed its comprehensive report on silica sand mining, concluding current environmental regulations, in addition to Wisconsin counties’ nonmetallic mining regulations, were sufficient to protect the environment and public health during a rapid expansion of sand mining operations.
Nonetheless, battles over frac sand mining continue in county boards all over the west-central region, due to the steady stream of misinformation that has been fed to the public, just as anti-growth activists have spread fracking misinformation across the nation. In both cases, the ailing economy is further impeded by unnecessary regulations.
The most recent example of this conflict is in New York, where the state and local governments are under enormous pressure from special interests to ban or implement a moratorium on fracking, typically under the mantra of “we need more study.” That phrase has become the catch-all excuse for activists to unapologetically disregard the dozens of studies, assessments, and testimonials that already have vindicated fracking.
Now it appears the same is beginning to happen in Wisconsin as local governments debate the costs and benefits of frac sand mining. Those governments should be wary of this posturing, check out the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources report, and stand up for local job-seekers. By refusing to give in to calls for senseless delays, local and county governments could give Wisconsin families a much-needed boost toward an economic comeback.