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?
The Institute for Wisconsin’s Health Incorporated conducted a health impact assessment on the impact of frac sand mining and found it isn’t contributing to hazardous levels of particulate matter. A new study released by the World Health Organization has found the United States as a whole has decreased its PM2.5 air pollution over the past five years, even as frac sand mining has boomed. PM2.5 levels have fallen in part because of increasing reliance on natural gas (which is captured as part of the hydraulic fracking process) to generate electricity. In this respect, the small, spherical grains of frac sand mined in the Upper Midwest are helping to bring cleaner air to the entire country.
Natural gas is a clean-burning fuel, and it is helping to reduce the amount of PM2.5 in the air. Burning gas emits only one-third of the nitrogen oxides and only 1 percent of the sulfur oxides that are emitted when coal is burned. These two compounds can combine with water vapor in the atmosphere to create the PM2.5 particles that have been linked to negative health impacts when they are present in very high concentrations. Those negative impacts include increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, such as asthma.
Natural gas helps reduce air pollution, and in order to get natural gas, the nation needs more hydraulic fracturing operations. Hydraulic fracturing now accounts for approximately 67 percent of all U.S. natural gas production, making the United States the largest producer of natural gas in the world. Increasing supplies of natural gas have caused energy prices to plummet, making it a significantly cheaper source of fuel to generate electricity with compared to other forms of energy, such as coal.
Low natural gas prices are the reason why the Energy Information Administration has predicted 2016 will be the first year natural gas-fired generation exceeds coal generation in the United States on a year-to-year basis. As natural gas becomes responsible for generating a greater share of the nation’s electricity in the future, and fracking becomes responsible for a greater share of natural gas production, America’s reliance on frac sand mining will only continue to grow.
It’s understandable for people living near industrial sand facilities to be concerned about the potential impacts of sand mining on the environment and human health, but it’s important to understand the best available science on the topic shows industrial sand mines and processing plants pose virtually no harm to air quality near these facilities, and the spherical sand mined in the Upper Midwest is playing an important role in reducing air pollution across the entire nation.
Sand mining must be done in an environmentally responsible manner that minimizes the risks and maximizes the benefits. It’s easy to fixate on what the local impact of a new industry will be, but it’s also important to understand the benefits derived from sand mining extend beyond our own backyards.