Sandstorm of Business: Frac Sand Frenzy - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Sandstorm of Business: Frac Sand Frenzy

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Western Wisconsin (WQOW) - There's now a flurry of activity along the countryside.  Energy companies have set their sights on sand buried in the hills and bluffs.  To understand why this is happening, you have to start in North Dakota.

That state is one destination for western Wisconsin's sand.  Drillers mix it with water and chemicals, then send it underground to retrieve oil and natural gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.  The process of using sand for hydraulic fracturing is not new.  In a geological survey printed in 1971, there are details about how silica sand in Wisconsin is used for hydraulic fracturing.

What's new today is the advancement in technology used in the process.  The industry is now combining the hydraulic fracturing technique with other technologies, like horizontal drilling, to make the process more economically viable.  Here's how it works:  A well is drilled, much like a traditional vertical well, but then it's turned to run in a horizontal direction.  The sand and water mixture is forced out into the rock and the pressure causes the shale to fracture.  Brian Nodolf, an attorney with Spangler, Nodolf, Bruder & Klinkhammer in Eau Claire, explains why the sand is so important once the pressure causes the shale to separate.  "The pressure is withdrawn and that point, as it withdraws, the fluid backs off, but the sand remains as pillars so it will hold that shale apart just a little bit and that allows the oil and natural gas to exit where it normally could not," said Nodolf, who represents energy companies and landowners.

"Essentially, they can drill one well where before they'd have to drill maybe five or even more wells to be able to yield the same volume," said Rich Budinger, the regional manager for Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co., which operates four mines in western Wisconsin.  Due to the advancements in technology, domestic production of oil and natural gas in states like North Dakota is surging, which means the demand for sand is too.  U.S. frac sand producers sold or used more than 6,500,000 metric tons of sand worth $319 million in 2009.  New numbers from the past two years are likely to dwarf those.

That brings us back to western Wisconsin.  The area has some of the best frac sand in the country because it's the right size and shape needed for drilling.  "People think that we actually fracture silica on site and we do not do that," said Budinger.

The fracking doesn't happen in our area, but frac sand mining/processing does.  Budinger explains the process, "We hire an explosives contractor to come in and actually perform the blasting.  The blast will be, essentially, three to four days worth of production."  The sand is loaded and eventually mixed with water before heading to a wet plant.  "The wet plant essentially removes all the clays and the fine sands from the sand, cleaning the sand so, at that point, we have a clean sand that's, for the most part, individual grains that are stockpiled," explains Budinger.

There is also a drying process and the sand is separated into six different products from coarse to finest, and not all is used for fracking.  "The sand is stored, after it's sized, is stored in the silos and then can be shipped through a conveyor, transported to our truck scale and trucks... and then they deliver sand to either the final customer or our rail terminals.  This operation will, typically, produce 600,000 tons of finished product per year," said Budinger.

There is so much sand in western Wisconsin which is creating a new source of income for many people in our area.  "Property owners may be, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, that they're getting for this type of material," said Mel Erickson, director of Eau Claire County's Department of Planning and Development.

At the same time, there are serious concerns.

"Silica sand, itself, is a carcinogen.  If you get enough silica dust in your lungs, you will get silicosis and die," said Mike Michaud, a concerned citizen from the Maiden Rock area.

That's where WQOW News 18 will pick up the story Tuesday night @ 10 p.m. in its series, "Sandstorm of Business."

If you have questions you'd like answered, let us know.  WQOW News 18 plans to address as many questions as possible this week during our coverage of frac sand on Daybreak.

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