(WQOW News 18 tracked western Wisconsin's frac sand to North Dakota. This is the second in a series of reports.)
Western North Dakota (WQOW) - Western Wisconsin's sand is old, perhaps 500 million years old, but never before has it received this much attention. Companies from all over the country are knocking on doors in the area, hoping to mine the mineral.
That has led to an intense debate about the impact a surge in sand mining could have on the economy, the environment and many other things. The sand is being used by oil companies in a process called hydraulic fracturing. The Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota is a destination for much of it.
Pump jacks that now line the landscape of western North Dakota may not be poetry in motion, but their symbolism runs as deep as the oil they bring to the surface. If you listen closely, you can hear each one produce what sounds like a fast heartbeat. Each beat represents a boost for industry and jobs, but also concerns about the environment, the way of life in the Bakken. Oil is flowing much like blood is pumped through the body, so if a pump jack is the heart of the operation, sand from western Wisconsin is the oxygen that gives it life.
"The sand itself is the key that kind of unlocks all of this stuff. Without it, we couldn't do what we're doing," said Blaine Hoffmann, superintendent for Whiting Oil & Gas. "Believe me," Hoffmann continued, "technology has come so far, just in the last five or six years."
That technology has meant big things for a company like Whiting. Hoffmann says the fracturing of the shale is no longer left to a higher power. "You would pump down the wellbore at as high a rate of speed as you could go. That was called a Hail Mary frac. You pumped it and then you'd pray for good results," said Hoffmann. That's not a concern anymore. As Whiting would drill vertically and then turn to drill in a horizontal fashion, they started employing a technology called a "sliding sleeve." It allowed Whiting to fracture along a single wellbore multiple times. "Our wells used to come in at 800 barrels a day on these Hail Mary fracs or a thousand. After that first 10-sleeve design, that first well come in at over 2,700 barrels a day," said Hoffmann.
If the technology helps oil companies get their foot in the door, or the shale, it's the sand that acts as the doorman. "Those sand particles keep the fracture open. That's what allows the gas and oil to come to the wellbore and up the wellbore itself," said Hoffmann, who continued, "Right now, we're doing two to three million pounds (of sand) per well. That's a lot of sand."
"Wisconsin has been huge for our availability for sand. It's helping us bring these wells on at the volumes that we do," said Hoffmann, who described what the industry likes about Wisconsin's mineral, "Round is good because it's a lot easier to pump. Not all sand is round. Natural sand is not all round so we've created synthetic sands. Whiting, itself, goes mostly with natural sand."
Hoffmann also addressed recent reports that North Dakota could produce its own frac sand. "They're just experimenting with it now. I don't think Wisconsin has to worry anytime soon."
Badgers in the Bakken
"It's definitely unlike anything I've ever seen," said Jennifer McBride. Four years ago, she left Baraboo for western North Dakota where she became managing editor of the Dickinson Press. "I thought it was cold in Wisconsin. It gets cold here," said McBride. Reporter Bryan Horwath recently moved to Dickinson from Menomonie where he covered frac sand issues for the Dunn County News. "I don't think there's anything like what's going on here in the country right now. It's a modern-day gold rush is what it is," said Horwath.
Together, McBride, Horwath and the newsroom try to keep up. "We cover any sort of budget meeting, any sort of traffic meeting, everything comes back to the oil. We have a church story coming up and they are expanding because they have so many people coming in from out of state," said McBride.
It's so busy, the newspaper is expanding its coverage. "Just this month, we've come out with a weekly publication, called 'The Drill' that is based solely on energy," said McBride.
"You know, everyone out here has a dream. That's why we're here. We're here working to make money and to build America," said Kyle Woodman, as he stood looking at an oil rig. "I was actually born in Eau Claire at Luther Hospital." Woodman was waiting tables at the Olive Garden in Eau Claire up until a year and a half ago. Now, he's working construction in the Bakken oil fields. "(People will ask) 'How much money are you making?' I just say, 'Well, I just take my income, what I made back home and times that by two. That's now what I pay in taxes,'" said Woodman.
Woodman makes anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 a year as an excavator. "I walk through the prairie grass and I look at the stakes and I say, "Alright guys, this is where it's going to happen," said Woodman. He says the hours are long, the work is tough, but the payoff is worth it. "My girlfriend likes the money. Sometimes, we do get laid off in the wintertime. For me, that's a vacation because I get laid off and I just say, 'Yes' because now I get a month to do whatever I want. I went to Florida last winter. I would plan on staying here until at least the end of next year. At that point, I'm hoping I've got all of my debt paid off, a considerable amount of money in the bank and be married... and I'll probably move back to Eau Claire because I love it so much."
Woodman says as business booms in western North Dakota, there are drawbacks. "I've waited 45 minutes for gas in the morning in line. I witnessed a truck go right off the road. It took 25 to 30 minutes before emergency vehicles came and help arrived," said Woodman.
When it comes to drilling and fracking, Woodman says he believes companies are being very serious about safety. "Most people are concerned with the water table with fracking. If there are any chemicals or any of the fracking process affecting the water table two miles down, you'd think they'd also be concerned with maybe oil getting into the water because that's where the oil is," said Woodman.
"We need that domestic energy. That's good crude. That's good stuff, but we need to be sane about how we're going about it," said Dave Zentner from the Izaak Walton League, a nationally recognized conservation group. That is the next piece of the puzzle. Where do we go from here?
"I don't see a bust coming," said Hoffmann.
"I'm anticipating with great eagerness, with great joy when the bust comes because I hope it is absolutely brutal," said John Heiser, a Badlands naturalist.
The $64,000 question seems to be, "How long will the drilling continue at the current pace in North Dakota? If you can answer that question, you'll have a better idea about the demand for western Wisconsin's frac sand. That's one thing WQOW News 18 will address Tuesday night, along with many other topics about the future of the industry. That's Tuesday night at 10 p.m. in Sandstorm of Business.