There are signs that the frac sand mining boom across western and central Wisconsin has paused because of low natural gas prices. But make no mistake: Frac sand mining in Wisconsin is here to stay for several decades. The question is: What’s left after the resource has been hauled away forever?
The sand rush is bringing windfall profits to some folks who sell or lease their land and is providing jobs for others in tough times. But communities are also being torn apart by strife over these sometimes huge mining, processing and shipping operations. Agricultural operations have been disrupted, and one impact that has received almost no attention is the loss of farmland, so crucial to our state’s well-being and our state’s top industry.
Frac sand is used with chemicals and water in the hydraulic fracturing drilling technique that reaches far below the earth’s surface and fractures rock to remove gas and oil. Wisconsin may be energy-poor, but we are rich in the kind of sand needed for this process.
The Department of Natural Resources estimated earlier this year that current or planned mines will provide more than 12 million tons per year. But its own admission, the department says this is a conservative estimate. And it doesn’t account for more mines sure to be developed down the road.
Wisconsin needs to get its act together on frac sand mining. Most of the regulatory authority is local. The state has taken a hands-off approach to this major and permanent alteration to the landscape. That’s terribly shortsighted. For Wisconsin, “drill, baby, drill” means “dig, baby, dig.” Reclamation is required on these sites, but let’s not kid ourselves. The land will be forever altered.
Here’s a suggestion: The state should assess mitigation fees for the removal of the resource and the impacts on agriculture and rural communities. A fee should be assessed on every ton of frac sand that leaves this state, never to return.
I’ll admit my own bias here. I’ve worked on farmland preservation for several years. If that work has taught me anything, it’s that Wisconsin has lost tens of thousands of acres of farmland over the past few decades. If we’re going to add to that total thousands more acres due to frac sand mining, a mitigation fee should be used to support farmland preservation efforts, including easement programs that protect the best farmland elsewhere in the state.
U.S. Department of Agriculture figures tell the tale of our losses all too well: We were in the top 10 states of farmland converted to other uses in 1982-2007. Wisconsin was fourth nationally in prime soils converted to other uses in 2002-07. At one point, the state was losing 30,000 acres of farmland a year. In some cases, we are talking about what is recognized as the best farmland in the world, folks.
If we need any reminders about the importance of agriculture to our economy, witness the past few years, when it was one of the few bright spots here and nationally. Now, as out-of-state companies haul our natural resources away forever, are there any leaders who will stand up and say “enough”?
There may be some legal hurdles, but the concept is worth exploring. And while Wisconsin is devising a “frac sand takings” mitigation fee, we ought to do the same for transportation projects that take prime farmland. Otherwise, we’re just eating our seed corn, one field at a time.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org