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MPR News Primer: Frac sand mining

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Sand mining
A miner drills holes in layers of rock where explosives will be placed and detonated to extract silica sand from the mine. Sand mining has become big business in recent years and mining companies are looking to expand their properties. Now some landowners are considering the option of selling or leasing their land to big companies who want to explore the area's natural resources and alternative forms of energy.
Special for MPR/Alex Kolyer/ Link to full photo gallery

Last updated February 15, 2013

In hydraulic fracturing, a sand made from quartz rock plentiful in our region is blasted into shale rock to extract oil and natural gas.

Skyrocketing demand for frac sand, a key ingredient in North Dakota's energy boom, is creating a gold rush in the hills of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. That sand can help make America energy independent

Can the costs and benefits of frac sand mining be balanced?

What is silica sand and why do advocates say it's so crucial to energy production?

Silica sand is made from small, hard, round quartz rock mined for decades in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin for window glass, water filtration, and other products. In the right form, it's also perfect for hydraulic fracturing, a process where pressurized water and chemicals are used to break open shale rock to free the oil and natural gas deposits within. 

The sand is shot in to keep the fractures propped open so that the oil and gas can be removed. Its size and hardness make it perfect for the job.

The hydraulic fracturing method isn't new. But the high price of oil, demand for natural gas and improved drilling technology are now making it worth the cost. Because of that, the use of hydraulic fracturing - and the sand it requires - is skyrocketing. According to a one industry report, U.S. silica sand production doubled in 2010 but isn't close to meeting future demand.

How quickly is the sand business growing?

The silica sand market has roughly doubled in size since 2008, data collected by the  Geological Survey show.

"It's huge," Thomas Dolley, a U.S.G.S analyst who follows the silica mining industry, told the Associated Press. "I've never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin."

One of the industry's major players, U.S. Silica, says its sand sales tied to hydraulic fracturing nearly doubled to $70 million from 2009 to 2010 and brought in nearly $70 million in just the first nine months of 2011. The sand's potential bonanza is one of the main reasons the 111-year-old company started selling shares to the public to raise money for a new facility to coat its frac sand with resin to increase its strength. 

In September, Reuters quoted an energy industry executive saying, "There's been a sand shortage in the U.S. Those who have sand or access to sand can pretty much charge what they want for that sand."

Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma produce nearly two-thirds of the nation's silica, according to the U.S.G.S.

What are the benefits of hydraulic fracturing mining?

The silica sand is part of a resurgence in the U.S. oil industry that some observers say will finally help the U.S. be largely independent of Middle East oil. The U.S. Department of Energy noted that the U.S. in 2011 exported more petroleum products, on an annual basis, than it imported for the first time since 1949. 

The drop in oil demand during the recession has a lot to do with that. But so does the rise the past couple years in U.S. oil production, driven in large part by the industry's ability to pull oil out of shale like those in the Bakken deposits of western North Dakota. Thanks largely to advances in drilling science, the U.S. Geological Survey says the Bakken may hold up to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil - 25 times greater than the 1995 estimate.

Locally, the counties in southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota with large stores of silica are sitting on gold mines that could make some property owners wealthy and bring jobs and needed income to towns hurt in the recession. 

Mining and oil industry officials say they are responsible stewards of the land and that the mining can be done be done responsibly while spreading jobs and wealth across the region and helping America become less dependent on foreign energy.

How about the negatives? 

The increased mining is already creating conflict. Some residents are objecting to the noise and truck traffic caused by the mining. Environmentalists worry about the damage to the region's hills and bluffs and the potential water and air pollution that could come with increased mining. Some have already raised concerns about the fate of a rare blue butterfly with habitat near the silica regions.

Reporter Laurie Stern wrote about the divisions among residents in Chippewa County, Wis., over the mining. "Many rural communities through the upper Midwest are bracing for the impact of the sand rush," she wrote. "Some counties are passing moratoriums so they have time to study the issue. It's hard for them to decide whether frac sand mines are saving the region or savaging it."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says it's been getting more calls from residents near silica sand projects concerned about possible health risks associated with silica, a potential carcinogen. The agency, though, says most of the information on silica's health effects comes "almost exclusively from occupational settings, where exposures are more concentrated. There are no federal or state standards for silica in ambient air."

Beyond the environmental, quality of life and health issues tied directly to frac sand, there are huge worries about what it's being used for - hydraulic fracturing. Those worries run from environmental contamination to whether the wastewater from hydrofracking triggered earthquakes in Ohio.

Where do we stand in Minnesota and Wisconsin?

Right now, we're in a bit of a standoff.

The DNR counts a total of eight current mines

Despite the money to be made and the clamor of businesses to open new mines, many officials in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin have pulled back the reins as they rethink the social and environmental costs. 

In 2012, Houston, Goodhue, Wabasha and Fillmore counties placed temporary bans on new mines in those counties. The cities of Red Wing, Winona, Lake City, Hay Creek and Florence also passed moratoriums while official drafted frac sand mining ordinances.

The moratoriums in Wabasha and Goodhue counties expire in August 2013. Fillmore County's expires in March and Houston County officials voted to extend their moratorium until March, 2014.

Wabasha city councilors voted to impose a moratorium until March 2014 on new or expanded mining or processing, and on increased truck traffic on the west side of the city. Residents of St. Charles are also pushing for a moratorium. 

In the city of Winona, officials used an emergency meeting last year to pass a one year moratorium on any new or expanded silica sand mining operations within city limits. In June, however, the city council backed a permit for a local trucking company to ship silica sand via the city commercial dock on the Mississippi River. Also grandfathered in is the Biesanz quarry, a decades-old sand and gravel pit.

With the rise of hydraulic fracturing, the silica sand business, said one councilman, is not going away

Officials say they want more time to study silica sand mining. But state lawmakers, concerned about fairness for companies and landowners, have filled bills in the Minnesota House and Senate that would check the power of local officials to limit moratoriums. 

If there's a middle ground in the sand mining debate, it has yet to be discovered.

MPR News reporters Elizabeth Baier and Stephanie Hemphill contributed to this report.