Wisconsin can protect its place as the leading supplier of sand for the nation’s fracking boom provided it has good regulations in place and promptly addresses any nuisance concerns raised by neighbors of the state’s fast-multiplying sand-mining facilities, according to a former EPA administrator who spoke to a business convention Tuesday in Middleton.
J. Winston Porter, now a Savannah, Ga.-based energy consultant and fracking proponent, also said maximum transparency by state regulators and the companies involved was key to minimizing much of the controversy inherent in any kind of mining operation.
“Obviously on both sides, there are going to be people who are dug in and don’t want to move an inch,” said Porter, who held the No. 2 spot at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush from 1985 to 1989.
“To me, I don’t think sand, per se, is terribly dangerous,” Porter added. “But it’s still mining. If you go to my backyard acreage and you dig giant holes and just leave them there, it’s not good. So it’s going to need to be looked at.”
Sand mining in mainly western Wisconsin has rapidly expanded since 2010 in lockstep with the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It is itself a controversial new process using a high-pressure slurry of sand, water and chemicals to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock previously thought effectively impenetrable about a mile below the earth’s surface.
Wisconsin doesn’t have any shale suitable for oil or gas mining, but it’s tied up in the extraction boom because it boasts a broad swath of sand deposits that are relatively easy to reach. The sand grains also are prized for their hardness and spherical shape, characteristics that make them ideally suited to crack open the rocks.
State contractors have been quick to respond to the increased demand for Wisconsin sand.
State Department of Natural Resources officials last week said the most current records show Wisconsin has 135 active sand-mining operations — up from less than 10 in 2010 — plus about a dozen proposed mining sites and 80 or so inactive sites.
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Deborah Dix, the DNR’s lead specialist on frac sand issues, said the 135 active operations include 63 sand mines, 45 processing plants and 27 shipping/rail operations. (However, the number of discrete mining sites is less than 135, as individual locations can be a single mine, processing plant or shipping/rail center, or some combination of the three types of operations.)
But however prized it may be, Wisconsin sand isn’t the only game in town, Porter warned, noting that good sand for fracking also is being mined in Texas and other states — even as researchers start to explore ways to use ceramics to replace sand entirely.
“There isn’t just one kind of sand (for fracking),” Porter said. “It certainly is very good sand from Wisconsin, but it’s competing with other states, and it also could be competing with other materials some day.”
That makes it important for Wisconsin sand-mining operations to be nimble and responsive to changing conditions, Porter said. That includes addressing or preventing nuisance issues around increased noise, dust or traffic before complaints can delay operations or sour neighbors on a process that also is creating new jobs and increased tax revenues, he noted, even as it has dropped the domestic price of natural gas by two-thirds in the past five to seven years.
Porter spoke about America’s changing energy future during an annual meeting of the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association at the Marriott Madison West and in an interview afterward. He covered a broad range of energy topics, including the traditional fuels — petroleum, natural gas, coal and nuclear, in that order — that still provide 91 percent of U.S. energy, along with the renewable sources that provide the balance through biomass, hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power.
“We need all these tools,” he said.
But he returned often in his remarks to the production surge allowed by fracking in cheap, relatively clean and flexible natural gas, crediting it for a “miraculous change” in U.S. energy supplies and security.
“We went from thinking we were running out of it and would have to import it to being able to export it,” he said. “We now produce the most natural gas of any country in the world. And we’re about three years away from being the biggest oil producer in the world.”