Hydraulic Fracturing Comes to Wisconsin

As someone who follows U.S. water issues fairly closely, especially those associated with the water-energy “collision” as the Union of Concernced Scientists so aptly calls it, I thought that hydraulic fracturing was a distant concern for those of us who live in Wisconsin.  The latest newsletter of the River Alliance of Wisconsin has corrected my error.

I knew that hydraulic fracturing, practiced primarily in Colorado and surrounding regions, as well as sections of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, involved the high pressure injection of sometimes un-named fluids into gas-bearing rocks, thus causing the rocks to fracture and release natural gas so that people in Wisconsin and elsewhere can cook their dinner and heat their homes.  What I didn’t know is that after the liquid is injected, a “proppant” is added to prevent the fracture from collapsing. According to Wikipedia, “To keep this fracture open after the injection stops, a solid proppant, commonly a sieved round sand, is added to the fracture fluid. The propped hydraulic fracture then becomes a high permeability conduit through which the formation fluids can flow to the well.”  The key words to note here are “a sieved round sand”.

The last glaciers retreated from Wisconsin 10,000 or so years ago, leaving their mark in many ways, including the Great Lakes that define the region.  However, the southwestern portion of the state, through which much of the glacier meltwater drained, received vast deposits of sand as their parting gift.  Apparently this fine-grained, high silica sand is exactly what is needed in hydraulic fracturing, and Wisconsin is in the midst of a sand boom.  These mines are creating something akin to dust bowl conditions for local residents, raising concerns about human health impacts.  But they are also raising concerns about impacts to groundwater and regional water quality.

As happens so often, the rush on natural resources which brings short-term financial gain and badly needed jobs comes on fast, before people realize what is upon them.  From what I have read, the boom in hydraulic fracturing brought on this unexpected rush for Wisconsin’s sand, and has caught the state off-guard.  Hopefully level heads can prevail, and a reasonable balance can be found – one that finds a sustainable pace for the economic opportunity that doesn’t sacrifice neighbors’ health, water quality, or community values in the process.  But in the meantime, when the fall chills hit, maybe I’ll turn that thermostat down just another degree. Fracking affects us all.

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