What is all the todo about frac sand mining?

1. What is frac sand mining?

  1. Frac sand mining is one of the varieties of what the State of Wisconsin refers to as “non-metallic mining.” The state divides mining activity in the state into metallic and non-metallic mining and regulates them differently. This is why our website is organized the way that it is. Both types of mining are regulated, in part, by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR describes non-metallic mining like this: “Nonmetallic mining is the extraction of stone, sand, rock or similar materials from natural deposits. The most common examples of nonmetallic mines are quarries and pits. Nonmetallic mining is a widespread activity in Wisconsin. The variety of geologic environments support a diverse industry. An estimated 2,500 mines provide: aggregate for construction;  gravel and crushed stone (limestone and dolomite) for road construction; dimension stone for monuments; volcanic andesite for shingles;  peat for horticulture and landscaping; industrial sand for export out of state for the oil industry; and a considerable variety of materials for other uses. The bolded part of the definition is the “frac sand mining” part. Another name for frac sand mining is “industrial sand mining.” It also includes the mining of silica sand used for glass production and for the making of foundry molds. Both of these uses have been providing jobs in Wisconsin for years. It has only been in the past few years, since the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracking in the oil and gas fields of New York, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Montana (among other states) that the demand for Wisconsin sand has exploded.

2. Is there fracking in Wisconsin?

Fracking is the shorthand term for "hydraulic fracturing" - the oil/gas extraction technique where water, chemicals and good Wisconsin sand are pumped under extremely high pressure into oil and/or gas bearing rock thank has been fractured by explosives in order to force out oil/gas from pores in the rock. The Wisconsin sand is used to prop open the cracks in the rock so that the oil and gas can keep flowing out of the rock.


No. There are no oil or gas deposits in Wisconsin. There is a small amount of shale formation that extends from Michigan under Lake Michigan and does appear on geologic maps as part of the rocks under the eastern part of the state, along the western edge of Lake Michigan. However, just because there is shale there does not mean that there is oil or gas in the shale or that even if oil or gas is present, that it might be economically feasible to drill for it.

Here is a map from the US Department of Energy showing where our sand goes:



3. Why does fracking have anything to do with Wisconsin?


3. Wisconsin sandstone was deposited millions of years ago along the shores of shallow tropical seas where the grains spent millions of years rolling gently in the waves, becoming perfectly round and the deposits becoming almost perfectly sorted into deposits of uniformly graded size before becoming sandstones. The Jordan, St. Peter and Wonewoc sandstones of the Driftless Area of western Wisconsin represent the largest, most accessible accumulation of proppant grade sandstone in the world.

4. What is a proppant?


4. A proppant is a material that is mixed with water and chemicals and pumped into an oil or gas well as a part of the hydro-fracking process. The function of the proppant is to “prop” open the cracks in the rock that the fracking process blast and pressure create so that the oil and/or gas can continue to flow out. Wisconsin sand is the best fracking proppant that the industry has discovered to date (as of the end of 2013). The oil and gas industry is working very hard to develop a synthetic proppant (for example, a ceramic) that could be created at the well site) to minimize transportation cost. After all, sand is heavy and Wisconsin is a long way from Montana!

5. Why is it called the Driftless Area?


5. When a glacier moves over the land, it carries with it a large load of sand, gravel, boulders of all sizes and a variety of assorted dirt. This mixture is known as glacial till or as "glacial drift." The Driftless Area of Western Wisconsin missed getting this load of geologic "junk" dropped on it when the last glacier ran over the rest of the state about 12-15000 years ago. As a result, the topography of this part of the state looks very different from the remainder of the state (or from most of the rest of the Midwest). This 3-D map from the Wisconsin State Geological Society clearly shows the difference between the heavily carved southwestern part of the state and the relatively flat balance. I circled this area in yellow to make it even clearer.3D_Wisconsin_map_large.jpg