Research & Commentary: Silica (Frac) Sand Mining

Published October 19, 2012

Activists recently have been pressing local and state governments in Wisconsin and Minnesota to ban silica sand mining. Although silica sand mining has been performed for thousands of years, not until recently have groups begun to accuse sand mining operations of threatening the environment and public health.

A study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources concluded current regulations, including Wisconsin counties’ nonmetallic mining regulations, are sufficient to protect the environment and public health during a rapid expansion of sand mining operations

Silica sand is very similar to the sand found at a beach or in a child’s sandbox, but silica sand is very well-rounded, features high compressive strength, and is free of the many impurities found in common sand. This makes silica sand ideal for industrial uses such as manufacturing glass, treating wastewater, and, most notably, hydraulic fracturing.

Newly available reserves of natural gas, enough to last the nation for generations, have sent demand for silica sand skyrocketing, because it’s one of the main ingredients in fracturing fluid. Since U.S. production of silica sand hasn’t been able to keep up with demand, an alternative ceramic material from China is being imported to cover the shortfall.

The United States has a large supply of high-quality silica sand located in Wisconsin, particularly near the western region of the state and overlapping into eastern Minnesota. Limiting or restricting access to this sand forces energy companies to resort to less-economical production choices, such as lower-quality sand from other states or expensive ceramic beads from China and Brazil. That eliminates job opportunities in Wisconsin while raising energy costs nationwide.

According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, natural gas development supported one million U.S. jobs in 2010 and is expected to sustain 1.5 million in 2015. Natural gas development also has played a major role in reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to a 20-year low, reducing energy costs for consumers and manufacturers, and strengthening the economy.

Banning or excessively regulating any form of sand mining—an industry that has operated safely in Wisconsin for hundreds of years—is unnecessary and would inhibit job creation. 

The following documents provide additional information about silica sand mining.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance to help withstand ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

Research & Commentary: Mining Regulation
Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith examines the role the mining industry plays in our lives and how the industry should be effectively regulated. 

Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) of Natural Gas
Heartland Institute Senior Fellow James M. Taylor provides a primer on hydraulic fracturing, discussing the overstated environmental impact and providing a series of useful links to additional research on the topic. 

Silica Sand Mining in Wisconsin
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources summarizes the best current information on the silica sand mining process. The report finds the current regulatory environment in Wisconsin is sufficient to protect the public and the environment as silica sand mining expands. 

The Economic Impact of Frac Sand Mining
Two economists from Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. analyze the economic impact of a silica sand mining expansion in Wood County, Wisconsin, an area with plenty of the resource. Among the many findings, the authors conclude the mining expansion would create more than 600 jobs and $33 million in new earnings in just the first year. 

Is Clay The Next Bakken Play? Ceramic Sand Could Be Made in North Dakota
The Bismarck Tribune reports on the potential for ceramic proppant beads—an alternative to silica sand—to be produced in North Dakota instead of having to be imported from China, as they are currently, thanks to the state’s generous clay deposits.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.