Sandstorm of Business: An Incomplete Picture - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Sandstorm of Business: An Incomplete Picture

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(WQOW News 18 tracked western Wisconsin's frac sand to North Dakota.  This is the third in a series of reports.)

Western North Dakota (WQOW) - Mining has been part of Wisconsin's history for generations, but the scale of sand mining right now is unprecedented in our state.  There are dozens of mines or processing facilities, either in operation or under consideration.  (On Tuesday, WQOW News 18 learned that Five Star Telecom Properties has requested a public meeting for a mine proposal in Eau Claire County.  That meeting could come in December.)

To understand how long we could see this level of mining in western Wisconsin, we headed west to North Dakota.  That state is the destination for much of the area's frac sand.

A Hummer vehicle can be seen next to a trailer in a man camp.  That image will never be mistaken for a Grant Wood painting, but it still represents America, possibly a new America.  In the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota, life is in the fast lane.  There's a race to achieve wealth.  Workers have come from far and wide as oil companies step on the gas to drill, baby, drill.

In August, North Dakota oil companies produced 700,000 barrels a day.  That's more than five times what they did five years ago.  "The oil's been there for a long, long time.  It's not going anywhere and they need to just slow this down," said Nikki McAlpin, a rancher.  She says the rapid production has affected an industry that helped build the state.  "We used to pay $200 an acre.  All of a sudden, this year, people are asking $5,000, $10,000 for one acre of land.  You can't farm and ranch on that, so if people still want hamburgers, they need to stop and think about the fact that we're one of the last places of high agriculture."

"To keep livestock, you have to have your ponds, your creeks, your springs and as they pull literally millions and millions of gallons of water, we're dropping our water tables and we're in a drought," said McAlpin.  "Most of our water does not come from groundwater, from well water.  Most of our frac water comes out of the lake, Lake Sakakawea.  There's enough water that goes by Bismarck in one day to furnish all the fracs for one year in North Dakota," said Blaine Hoffmann, superintendent for Whiting Oil & Gas.

Many people in western North Dakota were hoping the oil rush would reduce their pain at the pump, but when WQOW News 18 visited the Bakken in early October, unleaded gas was selling for more than $4 a gallon.  "When you have crude oil under your feet and a refinery 100 miles either direction, you'd think you should be paying minimal prices for gasoline, so we're mystified by that," said John Heiser, a Badlands naturalist.  "We have no control over that gas pump.  That's all through the refineries.  That's international," said Hoffmann.

"I wish biologists could run this state for awhile instead of business majors," said Heiser, who continued, "If you're going to have roads every half mile, every quarter mile, many species simply cannot take that level of disturbance.  They're too crowded, they're overcrowded, they need more space to roam, so they're just going to leave."  Hoffmann countered, "Our game population is the highest they've ever been in the history of North Dakota.  You have to let those guys say what they want to, but most of them are uninformed and they need to be educated."

Hoffmann says the big players are being proactive.  One example he gave focused on a sportsmen's energy group.  "We're going over some of the things that everyone would like to be involved with so we aren't affecting the wildlife or having the least impact we can," said Hoffmann.

So what does the future hold?  Will a bust follow the boom?

"That's going to be a good day when I see that.  I have no sympathy at all for the greedy developers, the greedy oil companies, everyone here who is hell-bent on destroying the land and the people of this place.  I'm anticipating with great eagerness, with great joy when the bust comes because I hope it is absolutely brutal," said Heiser.  "I don't see a bust coming.  You're going to have highs and lows, but with the energy needs that the country and world have right now, it's not going to go away," said Hoffmann.

"The vast majority of people who are in the know tell you that this is a long-term thing.  It might not be going as strong as it is right now, but things are still going to be happening here for years to come," said Bryan Horwath, a reporter for the Dickinson Press.  (Horwath used to cover frac sand as a reporter for the Dunn County News.)  "I would say 15 to 16 years after 2013, they'll continue drilling on the same sites, maybe two, three, four more wells per site," said Kyle Woodman, an Eau Claire man who's in North Dakota working as an excavator in the Bakken oil fields.

WQOW News 18 asked EOG about the demand for western Wisconsin's frac sand.   "Determining the level of demand for Wisconsin sand is difficult because well drilling techniques differ between companies.  In order to get a better understanding of the current demand we can review the number of air permits that have been issued and the size of operations that have been approved.  When you index the permits against the number of operational mines, it is estimated Wisconsin will produce approximately 18.2 million tons of frac sand in 2012.  I do see the growth of the industry starting to slow down, but Wisconsin sand continues to be in demand.  The amount of material being mined has increased so the supply is starting to catch up with the demand," said John Behling, a Weld, Riley, Prenn & Ricci attorney who represents EOG.

"It's not going to go away because the need for fossil fuels is not going away anytime soon," said Hoffmann.

The public discussion won't disappear either.

"The only way we get and keep enlightened public policy is that we care enough about our precious treasures to show up... and (participate in) that contact sport called "politics" and the legislative halls and confront these elected officials and let them know, 'We know what's going on, we're concerned about it and we expect this to be done in a sustainable way,'" said Dave Zentner from the Izaak Walton League, a nationally respected conservation group.

The mining in western Wisconsin and drilling in North Dakota are part of a national debate about energy policy.  Perhaps symbolic of that debate is a striking image of a flare that can be seen in parts of the Bakken.  "All these big flames you see?  That's all gas being wasted," said McAlpin.  Open flames at new oil wells represent an incomplete picture.  "The infrastructure is not in place yet for them to hook up to the gas line," said Hoffmann.

It's a red-hot industry that still has burning questions.  What happens tomorrow, next month or next year may not be set in stone, but will be set in shale.

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