Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How frac sand gains local political support: Notes from Trempealeau County

Since the early days of the frac sand boom, many observers have been troubled by the close connections that the industry sometimes cultivates with local town and county officials. These connections underscore how the mining industry relies on both economic and political influence to achieve its goals. In some cases, the relationship between a public official and a private industry would appear to represent a conflict of interest, such as when a town supervisor or a supervisor's family members get into the frac sand business by leasing their land. In other cases, the connections are subtle and indirect, but still effective, such as when deeply rooted allegiances between old friends or distant family member are activated in support of a specific proposal. Whether overt or subtle, the entanglement of political and economic interests creates a decision-making climate that facilitates growth of the frac-sand industry. How does the mining industry secure the support of local elected officials and public employees? How do they cultivate a decision-making climate in which local officials sometimes feel they have no choice but to accommodate the interests of a controversial industry?

Questions in Trempealeau County, WI

Trempealeau County recently passed a one year moratorium on the permitting of new sand mining operations in order to study the industry's health impacts. Over the past few years, the county has permitted at least 26 frac sand operations, including mines, processing plants, and rail transload facilities, representing the largest concentration of permitted frac sand operations in Wisconsin.

Several factors account for the rapid growth of the industry in Trempealeau County, including regional geology and access to coveted transportation infrastructure such as rail lines. But another key factor appears to be a local political environment that accommodates and advances the interests of frac sand mining. Frac sand interests have been able to influence local politics through at least three channels: outspoken industry advocates on key committees, elected officials who enjoy financial ties to mining, and hiring local experts away from government positions.