Jim Massey reported March 16 in The Country Today that Dan Baumann, DNR’s western regional director and spokesman for industrial sand mining, said that frac sand mining has grown rapidly in Wisconsin over the last five years and that more expansion could be coming.
Baumann also pointed out that while a typical gravel pit might be 20 or 40 acres, the footprint of a frac sand mine might be 5,000 acres with 400 to 600 acres open at a time.
After more than a year and a half of rewriting Waupaca County’s non-metallic mining ordinance, the Planning and Zoning Committee approved a new ordinance May 7 that still does not recognize a distinction between frac sand mines and sand or gravel pits. Despite the objections of many citizens that this ordinance treats industrial mining sites and small rural pits identically and provides inadequate protections, it will become the law if passed at the May 19 meeting of the County Board of Supervisors.
My studies suggest Waupaca County’s geology offers a measure of protection against the kind of wholesale industrialization of rural landscapes by frac sand mining that has overwhelmed many parts of western Wisconsin.
While geology has clearly endowed parts of the County with sandstones containing frac sand, most of them are buried deeper than 50 feet or under thick, dense dolostone. In general, frac sand mined here is likely to be only marginally competitive with frac sand mined in western Wisconsin, where deposits are far more accessible and thicker.
Western Wisconsin’s geologic advantage is especially significant in the current market environment of relatively low oil prices. Since many U.S. oil producers rely on more expensive unconventional drilling technology, like horizontal drilling and massive hydraulic fracturing, they and their service companies are now shopping aggressively for lower priced frac sand. Marginal frac sand producers are being pushed out. The recent shuttering of the frac sand processing center in Readfield may be a case in point.
Geology and market forces are presently acting serendipitously to diminish prospects for frac sand mining in Waupaca County.
The county’s geology is forever, but market forces change. Oil prices will someday rise sufficiently to reinvigorate the county’s frac sand prospects. When that day comes, it would be timely and reassuring to have a non-metallic mining ordinance written with the flexibility and forethought to expressly recognize the difference between a frac sand mine and a sand pit.