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Environmental Impacts of Industrial Silica Sand (Frac Sand) Mining

Authors: Isaac Orr and Mark Krumenacher. May 2015.


Sand has been mined for industrial processes across the United States for more than a century.Re ferred to as silica sand or industrial sand, it is used for a variety of essential industrial purposes, including as feedstock for glassmaking, cores for molding metal castings at foundries, metal production, and household and industrial cleaners; construction supplies such as concrete; bedding for livestock; an abrasive in toothpaste; filtering drinking water; and hydraulic fracturing, a technique used in oil and natural gas production.1

In recent years, the use of silica sand for hydraulic fracturing using horizontal drilling techniques has been the largest factor driving growth in the industrial sand market. Industrial sand, commonly referred to as “frac sand,” is crucial to the process of recovering oil and natural gas from shale, tight sandstones, and other unconventional rock formations.2 Growing demand for frac sand has led to an increase in volume and value of industrial sand produced in the United States.

Before the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing, industrial sand was a relatively small market. In 2005, for example, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data indicate 31 million metric tons ofindustrial sand were mined in 35 states. That sand was valued at $700 million, averaging roughly $22.6 per metric ton. Approximately 35 percent was used for glassmaking, 19 percent at foundries, 12 percent in hydraulic fracturing using vertical drilling techniques, and 10 percent in the construction industry.3

By contrast, in 2014 75 million metric tons of industrial sand and gravel were mined, nearly 2.5 times more than just a few years ago. That sand was valued at $4.2 billion, averaging about $56 per metric ton. Hydraulic fracturing, not the glassmaking industry, is now the leading use for
industrial sand, as 72 percent of the sand mined in 2014 was used for hydraulic fracturing and well-packing. Thirteen percent of the industrial sand mined in 2014 was used for glassmaking, 6 percent at foundries, and just 3 percent as whole-grain fillers and for building products.4 Much of the growth in industrial sand production has occurred in the Midwest: 68 percent of the industrial sand mined for hydraulic fracturing was mined in this region in 2012, and that figure has grown in recent years. The leading industrial-sand-producing states in 2014 were, in order of volume produced, Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa, together accounting for 78 percent of the industrial sand mined in the United States.5

Increasing demand for industrial sand has become a significant driver of economic growth, particularly in areas where frac sand is mined, resulting in substantial growth in employment in the industrial sand industry. In Wisconsin, the leading supplier of industrial sand in the nation, data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate industrial sand mining employed 189 people in 2002.6 The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation estimates this figure will grow to nearly 3,000 when existing and proposed mines become fully operational, representing a 15-fold increase in employment in the industry.7

Although industrial sand and gravel have been mined safely in the United States for more than a century, the recent growth in scale has raised concerns about the potential environmental impacts of industrial sand mining. These concerns have been perpetuated by environmental special-interest groups, many of which are ideologically opposed to oil and natural gasdevelopment and therefore to the use of hydraulic fracturing regardless of data establishing its safety. These advocacy groups have authored a series of reports raising concerns about the potential environmental, economic, and societal impacts industrial silica sand mining may have in areas where it occurs.

These advocacy documents, such as the Communities at Risk report published by Boston Action Research, do not give the reader a realistic understanding of the issue. They are based on anecdotal evidence, not credible scientific data. The reports are overly alarmist, downplaying the
positive impacts of industrial sand mining while exaggerating the possibility of negative impacts and neglecting to inform the reader those negative impacts are unlikely to occur.

Federal, state, and local regulators are responsible for developing rules and guidelines to protect the public interest, and these policymakers must have access to the best-available information to fulfill this responsibility. This Heartland Policy Study serves to provide a data-driven, not anecdotal, analysis of the potential environmental effects of industrial sand mining. Parts of this study will be dedicated to addressing the many misleading claims made about industrial sand mining in various environmental reports in an effort to develop better tools for policymakers on the subject matter.

Every society utilizes natural resources, and doing so may have an impact on the environment. In the United States, a great deal of time and effort is expended, in both the public and private sectors, to ensure environmental impacts are kept to a minimum. Citizens and policymakers must
weigh the costs of developing a resource against the benefits derived from doing so, and they should develop that resource in the most environmentally friendly way.

For an informed discussion to take place, the public must have access to the best-available information. Unfortunately, those raising fears of the effects of frac sand mining have taken advantage of the public’s limited understanding of the industrial sand mining process, limited recognition of the precautions taken to minimize potential environmental impacts, limited knowledge of geology, and lack of awareness of state and local regulations on silica sand production. This Heartland Policy Study is the first in a series explaining the advantages and disadvantages of industrial silica sand mining and providing information so a better-informed discussion can take place.

Part 1 of this Policy Study cuts right to the chase, considering the environmental costs and benefits of frac sand mining as they pertain to air quality, water quantity, water quality, and reclaiming mines after mining is completed. In Part 2, the authors review the background and potential of industrial sand mining in the United States and put that potential in the context of supply and demand for silica sand, now and into the future. Because demand for frac sand has been the main driver of growth for industrial sand production, Part 2 also briefly discusses the role of silica sand as a proppant for oil and natural gas recovery.

Throughout this Policy Study, the authors may use the terms silica sand, quartz sand, and industrial sand interchangeably to refer to sand that has the chemical composition of silicon dioxide, or SiO2, and is used for commercial purposes unless otherwise specified. The term frac sand will refer to industrial silica sand that is used specifically for hydraulic fracturing.

This Policy Study concludes silica sand mining can be done in a safe and environmentally responsible manner with proper oversight and environmental protections. State and local governments have done a commendable job working with environmental and industry leaders to craft legislation that protects the environment while permitting industrial sand production to move forward. Regulations crafted to specifically regulate industrial sand mining would be duplicative, resulting in higher costs without tangibly increasing environmental protections.


Download the complete report by clicking on this link.


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