Fracking Spurs Demand for the Stuff, Sparking a Mining Boom—and Vexing Some
Scouts armed with geological maps and elevations from Google Earth are knocking on doors in the upper Midwest in search of what seems too common to mine: sand.
The sedimentary material is in high demand among U.S. oil and natural-gas producers, setting off a sand rush in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other Midwestern states. While adding jobs, the mining boom is prompting pushback from some local residents, who are surprised by the frenzy and leery of its impact on their communities.
Sand mined in the Midwest is used in places such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania to tap oil and gas reserves. The U.S. producers’ demand for sand reached 28.7 million tons in 2011, up from six million tons in 2007, according to independent laboratory PropTester Inc. and consultancy Kelrik LLC.
The surging demand is making sand the Midwest slice of a national energy boom. Oil and gas producers in recent years have greatly boosted the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap reserves once out of reach. Sand, injected deep underground to prop open fractures in shale formations and allow oil and gas to flow out, is important in “fracking.”
Wisconsin and Minnesota have abundant supplies of the type of sand that oil and gas producers need. Geological conditions were right hundreds of millions of years ago to form sand hard enough to withstand the pressure thousands of feet underground, while also having round grains that leave space so the oil and gas can escape. Fracking sand can fetch around $50 a ton, depending on quality.