Sand in your backyard, natural gas in your kitchen

Tracing the perverse routes that link Wisconsin’s frac-sand industry to points across our fossil fuel-addicted country.
Aerial image of a deeply carved sidewall mine owned in Auburn, Wisconsin, owned by Superior Silica Sands, a Texas-based company.
An aerial photo shows a deeply carved sidewall mine owned in Auburn, Wisconsin. The mine is owned by Superior Silica Sands, a Texas-based company. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2013.

Tracing the perverse routes that link Wisconsin’s frac-sand industry to points across our fossil fuel-addicted country.

In a recent interview with Douglas Haynes on A Public Affair on WORT 89.9 FM, biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber discussed her essay, “Gas Stoves: The Fracking Tailpipe In Your Kitchen.” As Steingraber argues, not only do gas stoves produce toxic chemicals like nitrogen dioxide, but, as the title asserts, they link the intimate space of the kitchen—the anchor of US domesticity—with larger national, and even international, networks of resource extraction. 

To put it plainly, gas stoves function by burning fossil fuel inside your home, causing the same chemical reactions that occur in the smokestacks of power plants inside your home. Steingraber wants you to know that the dangers of gas stoves are undeniable, contributing to childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments. The fact that gas stoves have any popularity—enough now to put them at the center of the culture wars—is due to aggressive advertising by the gas industry, a tactic that dates back to the 1930s.

Listening to Steingraber list the harmful effects of nitrogen dioxide, I thought, “Thank god, my apartment doesn’t have a gas stove.” I briefly felt good about my situation until Steingraber clarified that even if I do not own or use a gas stove, I nevertheless live in a state that plays a special role in the natural gas industry. Folks who have lived in Wisconsin longer than I can probably guess why: frac sand mining. 


Mined from sandstone formations in central and western areas of the state, Wisconsin frac sand is excavated, crushed, washed, dried, sorted, and then shipped away to be used in hydraulic fracturing. Along with a melange of chemicals and water, it is then pressurized and pumped below ground in order to break up bedrock and release natural gas and petroleum.

As of 2014, Wisconsin was a leading producer of frac sand in the US, and in 2016 was home to 128 mining operations and processing plants. Though the frac sand mining industry has been in a downward trend since 2016 (about the time that I moved to the state), it is again on the rise, according to a November 2022 report on Wisconsin Public Radio

Video credit: Wisconsin Watch

But where does all this frac sand go? And, since Wisconsin has to import the natural gas it consumes, where does that natural gas come from? It turns out that the answer to both these questions is my home state of Texas. 

This means that for Wisconsinites, gas stoves are not only “the fracking tailpipe in your kitchen,” they are the terminus of a circuit of resource extraction and redistribution that loops across the continental U.S. And this circuit feels very personal. When I moved from Texas to Wisconsin, I thought I had left behind the Bible Belt and big oil. 

There is no escaping the fossil fuel industry. But this is less a story about me than a story of how energy and resources travel, often in ways that consumers are not meant to understand.

Earth moving

The fracking industry’s use of Wisconsin sand is an absurd infrastructural project, a project that began because of a particular confluence of economic and political factors within and outside of Wisconsin. 

The development of hydraulic fracking, which extracts natural gas from shale, was the energy industry’s solution to an increase in demand for domestic energy production in the early 2000s. Fossil fuel companies began operating fracking mines at a breakneck pace because they benefited from the rise of low-interest loans following the 2008 financial crisis. 

The identification of high-quality deposits of silica sand in Wisconsin led to the coordination between fossil fuel companies and sand mining operators in the state—coordination that would transport sand to the oil and natural gas deposits in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

To move all this sand, mining operators coordinate with trucking companies and railways to transport Wisconsin frac sand to well sites across the country. 

An aerial photo shows rail cars outside a fracking sand processing site in the Village of Taylor, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2019. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

During the peak years of frac sand mining in Wisconsin (2008-2016), 9,000 truckloads of frac sand were shipped from the state per day. Such a high volume of sand was in demand because a single fracking well can use as much as 5,000 tons of sand, according to a 2014 estimate. 

Shipped, for example, from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to Midland, Texas, this sand traveled a distance of about 1,300 miles only to then be pumped several miles underground. 

Pause a moment to consider how massive this earth-moving project is: over the last decade, millions of tons of Wisconsin sandstone have been excavated, shipped across the country, and then forced underground. Meaning, sand that was formed in another geologic age—when what is now called Wisconsin was underwater—will now forever live miles below ground half a continent away from where it was formed. 


All this earth-moving is taking place so that the US can be “energy independent.” That fracking—and all the infrastructure it requires—is even considered a novel technological solution to domestic energy needs speaks to the US’s ongoing and seemingly unquestioned dependence on fossil fuels, wherever their provenance. 

Texas roots

Wisconsinites might be surprised to learn—as I was—how Texas-based fossil fuel corporations contributed to the rise and fall of frac sand mining in the state. 

Though it’s painfully difficult to track down a basic list of frac sand mining operators, I find it telling that in all the reporting done by Wisconsin journalists and across national publications, Texas-based companies are given the lion’s share of coverage. (The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a poorly designed map that purports to track air quality around frac sand mines and processing plants, but it is unclear how this data is compiled or how frequently it is updated.)

Not only are many mines owned by companies based in Texas, some fossil fuel corporations even constructed their own rail lines to transport the sand from the mining operations that they bought in Wisconsin to the oil wells they owned in other states. 

EOG Resources—the rebrand of Enron Oil and Gas, which is still based in Houston—spent $200 million on three sand mines and two processing plants in Wisconsin, including a massive mine in Chippewa Falls, along with rail extensions with BNSF Railway. A Forbes writer called this investment a sign of the CEO’s “foresight” and ingenuity.

For many, Wisconsin’s “northern white” sand is special. Hi-Crush, a Texas-based company that owns several plants in Wisconsin, describes northern white sand with poetic reverence: “Sourced from a Pleistocene alluvial flow deposit of reworked, quartz-rich, Cambrian period sandstones, our Wisconsin natural proppants are geologically and textually mature, exhibiting exceptional purity, shape, strength and conductivity.” The dense technical language of this marketing copy nearly makes me blush. 

An aerial photo shows the criss-crossed tracks, piles of sand, and heavy equipment at the Chieftain Sands mine in Chetek, Wisconsin.
An aerial photo of a Chieftain Sands mine in Chetek, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2020.

Hi-Crush came under fire for dumping 10 million gallons of sludge into the Trempealeau River in 2018. The company’s owner, Robert Rasmus, donated tens of thousands of dollars to Scott Walker’s gubernatorial campaigns before the company declared bankruptcy, but not before Rasmus and other shareholders raked in profits

When the frac sand mining industry collapsed around 2016, many companies shut down or idled production; some shuffled around ownership of their mines. Superior Silica Sands, based in San Antonio, is a subsidiary of Emerge Energy, which declared bankruptcy in 2019 and shuttered seven of its eight mines. Superior Silica Sands still operates one mine in Chippewa County. Smart Sand, based in Spring, Texas, operates three mines in Wisconsin and bought Hi-Crush’s mine in Blair, in Trempealeau County, after Hi-Crush declared bankruptcy. 

Many factors contributed to the flagging of the industry: sand mines opened up closer to fracking wells in Texas’ Permian Basin, supply exceeded demand, and then the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war with Ukraine further interrupted business as usual. 

Reports from over the past few years indicate a new, if modest, rise in frac sand mining in Wisconsin. This sand will travel well-worn routes to Texas and more will be shipped to Canada, following new markets

It has been well documented by local and national environmental organizations that neither Wisconsin’s people nor its environment benefit from frac sand mining. Frac sand mines are responsible for air and water contamination, increased traffic and noise pollution, declines in property values, destruction of wetlands, loss of farmland across the Midwest, and more. There’s no denying that the erasure of rolling hills, the (Hi-) crushed communities, and the loss of jobs do not benefit the state. 

Looking at the wider infrastructures created by and for the fossil fuel industry casts a new light on these local issues. It also helps to illuminate the absurdity of fracking as an industry. 

As a report by the independent firm Power Consulting, Inc shows, frac sand mining is as damaging as other mining operations. Like other extractive industries, “Mines tend to have limited local connections with the local economy, especially if the mine [is] located in a rural area . . . As a result, the income generated rapidly leaks out of the community,” the report states. That income leaks to fossil fuel companies in Texas.

From railcars to pipelines to your kitchen

My ignorance of frac sand mining’s links to Texas was matched by my ignorance of how my electric bill links me to natural gas transported from the South.

Because Wisconsin doesn’t have any natural gas deposits, it imports the natural gas it uses for electricity production, and other industrial, residential, and commercial uses. Thus one resource (sand) is perversely exchanged for another (natural gas). Sand returns to the state as natural gas via pipelines like the ANR pipeline’s left leg (from Texas and Oklahoma) and right leg (from Louisiana). 

Image from: Wikideas1 (talk) (Uploads), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Madison, this natural gas is burned at MGE’s downtown power plant, behind the high brick walls of the Blount Generating Station. The company touts its “cleaner burning natural gas,” having transitioned from burning coal at the Blount plant in 2011. 

But there’s nothing “clean” about natural gas. For a time people considered it a less toxic pollutant than coal because, when burned, it produces half as much CO2 as coal. However, the mining, transportation, and processing of natural gas is not without its costs, as in the methane leaks that “greatly reduce or even eliminate the climate benefits of natural gas.” 

The messaging that minimizes the hazards of natural gas is not unrelated to the messaging that gas stoves are safe, nostalgically positioned as the “real deal.” As Steingraber argues, gas stoves “are the most hallowed of all household appliances and thus remain central to the industry’s strategy to entrench ever more gas infrastructure and keep the fossil fuel party going.” 

It’s hard to push back against the “naturalness” of natural gas or gas stoves because the industry has shaped consumers’ views on gas stoves. 

Meanwhile, the frac sand mining industry in Wisconsin has pushed back against regulations (aided by the Republican-controlled state legislature’s preemptive limitations on local ordinances) and has routinely violated the regulations that are in place. The industry is successful at this, in part, because particulate matter like silica dust is hard to measure and regulate. But inhaling silica dust can cause silicosis, lung cancer, and other ailments, and these effects may not manifest for years.

An aerial photo shows pools of greenish-brown water in a water impoundment in Auburn, Wisconsin owned by Superior Silica Sands, which is a Texas-based company.
An aerial photo shows pools a water impoundment at a fracking sand mine in Auburn, Wisconsin. The mine is owned by Superior Silica Sands, a Texas-based company. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2013.

Pollutants like methane and silica dust are less visible than oil spills or train derailments, making them difficult to measure and regulate despite efforts by groups like the Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates. But just as I have tried to trace the circuit of resource extraction from Wisconsin to Texas and back again, I could trace the air pollutants this circuit produces.

The big and small of it

Not only are these miniscule pollutants difficult to perceive, measure, and regulate, but the massive infrastructural project that is the fracking industry is difficult to perceive and regulate for the opposite reason: because it is so massive and politically powerful that it eludes regulation and masks its true impacts. 

How are consumers meant to face the challenge of bringing either the massive or the miniscule into view? The answer is that they’re not meant to. 

Groups like the FracTracker Alliance have been documenting the full scale of the fracking industry using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, photo archives, and personal testimonials. Ted Auch, the Great Lakes Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance, summarized the importance of these efforts in a 2022 interview with Edge Effects: “Whether you like or don’t like oil and gas, it definitely has a very real toll on the people who live near it. They are, to my mind, sacrificed for the larger need of energy in this country.” 

Thomas W. Pearson, an anthropologist at UW-Stout, calls the sacrifice of local communities to the energy industry a form of dispossession, one that extracts resources, gobbles up land, and leaves local communities to stare at “cut open” and “scarred” landscapes.

Local grassroots organizations and nonprofits like the Save the Hills Alliance, Concerned Chippewa Citizens led by Pat Popple, and Wisconsin Towns Association have documented the harms of frac sand mines in the state and advocate for their communities. And investigative journalism at Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio has charted the industry’s environmental and political footprint since the early 2010s. 

Nevertheless, the fight is unfairly matched. The dispossession in Wisconsin’s backyard is connected to other sites, like East Palestine, Ohio and “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana by the same infrastructures that feed the fossil fuel industry.

It took me researching this essay to begin to see the infrastructures that link Wisconsin to Texas. I have driven from Wisconsin to Texas and back not knowing that I was traveling along roadways that run nearly parallel to the pipelines and railways that transport natural gas and frac sand. Meanwhile, traversing roads bracketed by corn fields, roadkill, and strip malls, my own car is powered by yet another fossil fuel. 

Though I may have been taught to believe in spiritual forces I cannot see by my Bible-wielding educators, myself and other consumers are rarely primed to see the larger infrastructures that create our modern atmospheric conditions—the literal air conditioning of my home in Houston, or the natural-gas powered electricity that heats my home in Wisconsin. 

We are trapped in a tangled web of resource exchange that illustrates how absurd the fossil fuel industry is, and how it works at every level to obscure its impacts.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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