We’re not just cheese and beer. Wisconsin is contributing a natural resource vital to new domestic oil and gas exploration and extraction.
Here in Wisconsin, where we publish Gas, Oil & Mining Contractor, we never imagine profiting from the development of oil and gas exploration. We only watch from afar as ingenious new technologies are used to find untapped stores of domestic fuels to power commerce in our country.
All of that good stuff happens somewhere else, employing thousands of workers in far corners of the United States. Practically every day, I talk to people working on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania or the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, for example, who fill me in on the opportunities brought about through deep horizontal drilling.
This new run to produce domestic fuel is bringing thousands of regular paychecks during a period of economic malaise. Landowners who lease out their acreage are realizing the income they’ve only dreamed about coming from their properties. Grocery stores, mom-and-pop shops along Main Street in small towns, and thousands of small businesses in these exploration regions are prospering … but it doesn’t happen in my own backyard.
That’s what I thought.
Then I started learning about a great natural resource that plays a central role in new oil and gas production … and it’s found in great abundance in my own home state. It’s the highest grade of fracking sand you and your energy company customers are using to slice through miles of rock and unleash the raw materials we need to power this country toward energy independence.
PERFECT FOR Fracking
I couldn’t be happier that my state is an important contributor to the effort of energy companies tapping vast storehouses of new oil and gas. Across the Badger State, but especially in its northwest quadrant, there is a big sand boom going on, with untold tonnage of special 20/40 and 20/60 sand moving in every direction via truck and rail transport.
The sand in these regions is perfect for fracking – super hard and the right size to hold open the cracks that release oil and gas, but not so small as to hamper production in any way. So says Bruce Brown, a geologist for the Wisconsin Geological Natural History Survey. Brown provides information on the geology of the state to any concerned parties, and he’s never seen the level of interest in mining that he sees right now with fracking sands.
“All of a sudden it’s taken off like you wouldn’t believe this year,” Brown said. “We’ve got 20 to 25 mines total and 15 to 20 processing plants now. Five years ago, we had five. There’s been a real boom and it’s taken a lot of people by surprise, especially in western Wisconsin.”
The desirable fracking sand is made up of well-rounded mature quartz sandstone, single crystal grains with high compressive strength, Brown explained. They are just the right size and structure to be the perfect proppant to open up pores in the shale, then hold those pores open while gas and oil stores migrate to the borehole.
What’s more, there’s a lot of upside to using the Wisconsin sands.
While fracking sand can be found in other regions, the material here is generally located close to the surface in unglaciated, or “driftless” areas. It can be mined with little impact on the environment. In addition, Wisconsin has an established rail network to ship ample supplies nationwide in an efficient manner. And because the mines are all located short distances to population centers, there’s no need to spend money and resources developing or staffing worker camps.
The high demand and huge, easy-to-reach supply figure to transform Wisconsin into a center for fracking sand, Brown said. Currently rated No. 2 in production behind Illinois, Brown believes Wisconsin could take the top spot this year.
“It’s an ideal situation for Wisconsin to become the fracking sand capital of the United States, and that’s what we’re becoming very quickly,” Brown said. “We’re not going to run out of it. We could supply the gas and oil industry for many, many years and we wouldn’t miss it.”
Four types of Wisconsin sandstone sands are attractive for fracking purposes, according to Brown. They are, from the youngest to oldest geologically:
St. Peter is found in more abundance in eastern Wisconsin, and is popular for foundry sand in addition to some uses as fracking sand. It has a limited appeal for energy exploration because it is also found in Oklahoma and large mining operations there produce an ample supply.
Jordan Formation in Pierce County in the state’s northwest is from the Cambrian period and it is the prime material used as 20/40 sand integral to fracking operations going on in exploration hot spots across the country. It is regarded as having the perfect coarseness for the job, as well as having the highest compressive strength.
Wonewoc Formation provides the highest volume of sand, in Monroe, Trempealeau and Chippewa Counties in the northwest, and it is finer material than Jordan. It is easier to mine and has many uses, including glass manufacturing.
Mount Simon is the lowest bottom sand, found right above the granite basement in Clark and Wood Counties, in the west-central part of the state. Though it was initially thought to be too dirty to be useful in fracking, it is generating significant interest for that purpose.
Nobody can predict how long the heightened demand for fracking sands will continue here, but Brown is confident producers could be mining sands for 40 to 50 years in the state. He expects mines that flourish will be those with the best access to rail transport, while others may prove economically unfeasible in the long run.
But one thing is for sure: The mining operations will provide jobs and an economic benefit to our state that we couldn’t have predicted five years ago. And it feels good to be an unexpected participant in a thriving industry.
“Right now it’s similar to the Gold Rush. It’s the wild, wild west and it’s hectic,” Brown said. “I can’t even keep up with the number of operations out there. We happen to be sitting here with the most desirable material and they’re coming for it.”