Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series examining the potential impact frac sand mining could have on Sauk County.
As mining companies continue to expand their frac sand operations across western and central Wisconsin, some concerned residents believe it only is a matter of time before they seek to move into Sauk County.
An informal group of these residents is pushing for stronger rules to address the potential influx of mining companies, but local officials say rules already on the books are more than adequate to handle the impacts of frac sand mining.
“It may very well be coming to Sauk County,” said Dale Murray, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County and 2012-2013 Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service Fellow. “Understand that very few places have this sand. The sand particles can’t be too large, they can’t be too soft … just like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears;’ it has to be just right. Wisconsin has the best frac sand zone in the United States and arguably in the world.”
“It’s the Cadillac of frac sands,” says John Eric Allen, a representative of a concerned group of citizens campaigning for existing county ordinances to be revised. “We’ve got ‘Jordan’ here. They’re going to come after it.”
Allen says Sauk County has deposits about 55-60 feet thick of Jordan sandstone and Wonewoc formations, a highly prized source material for frac sand.
The state’s sand is in demand for use in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressure into rock to fracture it and free deposits of natural gas or oil. The sand keeps the fissures from collapsing but allows the gas or oil to get through.
Allen said he was surprised to find so many deposits in Sauk County. Pouring over GIS and cross-section maps of Sauk County he points out the high-quality — and easily accessible — silica sand layers near the tops of bluffs and deposits under western Sauk County.
The age of the Baraboo Range — 1.6 billion years — means all of the rock formations have been highly eroded, stripping away impurities and leaving only the round, quartz silica sand that meets fracking specifications. The poorly-cemented Jordan sandstone is easier to excavate, saving companies time and money. Along bluffs and ridge tops are especially accessible deposits, often exposed or with little overburden to remove. The glaciated portion of Sauk County has seen its frac sand stripped, but the deposits in Western Sauk’s “driftless area” remain.
John Eric Allen’s group, working in part with Wisconsin Grassroots Network believes that sand mining operations in Sauk County are inevitable, and they want the county to be prepared with proper policies.
Although he says Sauk County has some of the strictest ordinances around, adding that some surrounding counties have modeled their rules after Sauk’s, Allen claims that they aren’t the right kind of ordinances. He says the ordinances as they are now never were intended to deal with non-metallic mining on an industrial scale. Sauk County is home to sand mining for septic systems and animal bedding, but not frac sand mining…yet.
“I believe our ordinances are more than sufficient,” said Marty Krueger, Sauk County Board Chairman and incoming President of the Wisconsin Counties Association. “This includes the additional layer of review by the County’s Zoning Board of Appeals for any such permit. There are no current applications for any frac sand mine in Sauk County.”
Krueger also said no mining companies have expressed interest in Sauk County during the three recent years in which these operations have grown all over parts of the state. He said he doesn’t expect that to change.
“If they were going to come for our sand the big players would be here by now. We haven’t seen one application.”
Like Krueger, Brentt Michalek, Director of Sauk County’s Conservation, Planning, and Zoning Department also believes frac sand mining companies are unlikely to head to Sauk County.
“Sauk County is zoned. Mining applicants have to go through the semi-judiciary Board of Adjustments, They’d really rather go to un-zoned areas.”
Michalek worked with the Frac Sand Task Force on an industry-related policy manual intended as a guiding resource to un-zoned counties dealing with the impact of frac sand mining.
“We aren’t telling counties what to do, we say ‘here is what you might do, tweak it to your situation.’”
Boom or bubble?
Sand prices are dropping and there are signs that the frenzied growth of the frac sand mining industry is over.
Frac sand mining has been occurring in Wisconsin for 40 years, but has only recently sparked controversy. From 2002 to 2012 frac sand production rose 2,400 percent, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism estimates the creation of more than 2,500 jobs will be tied to the industry.
Nationally, the hydraulic fracturing industry purchased $3.7 billion worth of sand in 2011. However it’s now believed that the facilities already in place are sufficient to meet the national demand, which is estimated at about 40 million tons a year.
Some say it would only take 20-25 large scale operations to meet the demands of the entire nation. In a January 2012 DNR document the agency places a conservative estimate of frac sand production at 12 million tons per year, based on existing facilities and ones that were already under construction, not counting the about 20 new operations that were being proposed at that time.
To be continued
At its highest, frac sand sold for $100 per ton, and although figures for last year aren’t available yet, the industry claims prices have dropped “significantly.” Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association — an industry trade group representing five large companies — believes the lower sand prices will benefit experienced mining companies, saying if prices continue to fall it would establish a competitive market.
This poses a particular risk financially for smaller mining companies, which struggle with diminishing profits and shipping costs that make up to 50 percent of the price per ton of frac sand produced. Only 25 percent of sand mining operations have easy access to railroads, and most of that list is made up of larger mining companies. Big mining companies often enter into long-term private contracts with rail lines, something the smaller businesses often are unable to do.
In some areas, companies already have obtained their permits but haven’t begun construction yet, likely waiting to see if sand prices go back up.
All of these factors are combining to slow the industry’s growth outside of established mining areas, reducing the likelihood that new mine operations would seek permits in Sauk County.