Isaac Orr is a research fellow for energy and environment policy at The Heartland Institute. Orr is a speaker, researcher, and writer specializing in hydraulic fracturing, frac sand mining, agricultural, and environmental policy issues. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire with studies in political science and geology, winning awards for his undergraduate geology research before taking a position as an aide in the Wisconsin State Senate, where he served as lead-office writer and as a policy advisor on frac sand mining and agricultural issues.
The rapid development of frac sand mining in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and especially Wisconsin led many people living near mines and processing plants to become concerned about the potential negative impact these facilities could have on local air quality. One of the primary worries some residents cite is the amount of very fine particle pollutants, measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), that may be generated from these facilities. But what does the best available evidence tell us?
Vast reserves of oil and natural gas have been known to exist in shale formations throughout the United States for decades, but extracting these resources was not economically viable until the advent of “smart drilling” technology—the combination of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing techniques, and computer-assisted underground monitoring.1 This technology, along with confidence that oil prices would remain high, gave producers the incentive to discover and develop shale and other unconventional sources of oil and gas around the nation.
Industrial silica sand has been mined in the upper Midwest for more than one hundred years. In Wisconsin, an estimated 2,500 non-metallic mines, including limestone and granite quarries in addition to sand and gravel mines, provide aggregate for construction, stones for monuments, and sand for glassmaking, foundries, livestock bedding, and oil and natural gas development.
Industrial silica sand has been mined across the United States for more than a century. Until recently, this sand was used primarily for glassmaking, cores for molding metal castings at foundries, metal production, feedstock for household and industrial cleaners, and construction supplies such as concrete. A small share of the sand was used for hydraulic fracturing, a technique used in oil and natural gas production.