August 19, 2012

Future of frac sand unclear

Preferred Sands' employees install a safety fence around the crushing area of the mine in Blair, WI, June 20, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

What will the sand mining industry look like in Wisconsin in 30 years? Some of the small sites will be completely mined and reclaimed in a few years, according to permit applications, while most of the larger facilities with processing plants estimate they have 15 to 25 years of sand reserves.

The demand for Wisconsin’s sand directly follows the demand for oil and natural gas, according to Thomas Dolley, a mineral commodity specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

“I’ve heard rumors that things are flattening out a bit, but I don’t think it (hydraulic fracturing) is going away anytime soon,” Dolley said.

In Wisconsin, many industry experts believe that the state is nearing the peak of new mine development and that established, corporate mining companies will soon out-compete the smaller operations.

“The small companies will quickly discover that it’s not profitable to truck sand across to Minnesota for processing and then back somewhere else to ship and sell if the price drops even a little bit,” said Bruce Brown, who recently retired as senior geologist with the Wisconsin Geological Survey.

“The little guys will sell out or give up. It’s got to settle out one of these days, because we’re going to satisfy the demand pretty quick.”

— Kate Prengaman