By Tom Still


Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle: In Saudi Arabia, a land where piles of sand stretch on for miles and miles, there is a shortage of the round, pure grains of silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing.


In fact, the Saudis have imported sand from Wisconsin for use in their oil and natural gas “fracking” explorations.


While far from uncontroversial, the mining of “frac sand” in Wisconsin is one example of how the state is capitalizing on the international boom in oil and natural gas exploration – a bonanza that could make the United States a net exporter of oil and gas in time.


There’s not a barrel of oil or a cubic foot of natural gas lurking under Wisconsin’s rolling landscape, geologists agree, but there are millions of tons of quartz sand in central and western Wisconsin.


Read the full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.


With 105 state mines producing sand used nationally and globally, Wisconsin has become the third leading state for production of high-grade frac sand. The sand is mixed with chemical gels and water and forced into energy-bearing rocks under high pressure to fracture deep underground formations, which in turn releases the oil or gas.


Sand miners in Wisconsin were quick to seize the day, but the national oil-and-gas boom brought on by the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling spells opportunities for other Wisconsin businesses that will never turn a single spade of dirt.


In the process, those companies stand to help oil and gas fracking become cleaner, safer and more economically efficient.


An example of a Wisconsin company on the cusp of the fracking boom is AquaMost, which uses an advanced oxidation technology to clean and recycle water used in the exploration process. Based in Madison and backed in large part by Milwaukee investors, AquaMost is deploying systems at frac mining sites in Colorado and Utah to reduce water consumption and fears of pollution. It’s a recycling technique that also means less pumped water stays underground.


“We cost less than the current solutions, and we’re greener,” said AquaMost CEO Todd Asmuth, who spoke at the July 23 meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison. Asmuth, who came to AquaMost with four startups under his belt, said the company is using technology initially developed at UW-Madison and refined over time to meet industry needs.


But the story doesn’t end with sand and water, Asmuth noted. Other Wisconsin companies in core industries are poised to take part.


“There are many industries we have in Wisconsin that can come into play with this type of oil and gas production,” Asmuth said. “We don’t have oil and gas here, but maybe that’s a blessing, because we can focus on selling picks to miners.”


Examples of “picks” include mining equipment, trucks, transmission equipment, storage tanks, chemicals, coatings, pipes, pumps and valves, not to mention natural resources expertise that has long characterized Wisconsin’s research and development base.


Tim Keane, a Milwaukee investor and chairman of AquaMost’s board, stressed the problem-solving aspect of the company’s technology.


“This is exactly the kind of Wisconsin business everybody should love. The technology will make the world a better place by improving water quality, and it also will help bring energy independence to America,” Keane said. 


Not everyone sees the fracking boom as a “win-win” proposition. Some people who live close to sand mines complain about high dust levels, truck traffic, deteriorating roads and possible groundwater pollution. Others fear earthquakes near sites where oil and gas exploration takes place – not because of hydraulic fracturing itself, but because of deep disposal of the brine used to do it.


As a leading regulator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources explained to the WIN group, frac sand mining in Wisconsin is largely governed by local regulations and zoning rather than statewide laws. However, the DNR controls permits for air management, high-capacity wells and site remediation.


Concerns about groundwater pollution at fracking sites prompted a federal study in western Pennsylvania. So far, there is no evidence that chemicals used in the natural gas drilling process contaminated drinking water aquifers. Researchers found that fluids used to free gas trapped deep below the surface stayed thousands of feet below the shallower areas that supply drinking water.


The results were preliminary, but they are the first independent look at whether fracking chemicals pose a threat to people during normal drilling operations. Researchers view the study as just one part of the efforts to examine the effects of fracking, not a final answer about the risks.


Those answers may come from companies such as AquaMost, which apply innovation and business sense to complicated problems. Wisconsin will never export a drop of crude oil, but it can export the know-how needed to make fracking a boom instead of a bust.