IM 2012 Round-ups: Frac sand

By Emma Hughes
Published: Friday, 21 December 2012

The US frac sand industry dominated the headlines in 2012 as mining activity boomed almost as fast as fracking opposition mounted.

The US frac sand industry dominated the headlines in 2012 as mining activity boomed almost as fast as fracking opposition mounted.

More than 40% of the US’s frac sand tonnage was used as hydraulic fracturing sand and well-packing and cementing sand, while 26% was used as glassmaking sand, 11% as foundry sand, 6% as other whole-grain silica, 6% as whole-grain fillers and building products and 10% for other uses according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).

While the US maintained its position as the world’s largest silica sand producer this year, other countries also progressed with major announcements coming out of Europe, China and South East Asia.

US frac sand fray

US shale gas boomed during 2012 due to the country’s drive for new, alternative energy sources, but this was also met with increasing controversy concerning frac sand mining and fracking.

Minnesota

The city of Winona, Minnesota introduced a one-year moratorium on frac sand operations at the end of October after concerns over the area’s air quality were raised.

Tiller Corp. also faced frac sand difficulties in 2012 as its Minnesota-based processing plant was investigated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) after claims that it did not have the necessary permits when construction began.

Tiller stopped construction in May after discovering it did not apply for the correct environmental permit back in February. However, Mike Caron, director for land use affairs, remained confident that the plant will open early next year.

Elsewhere in the state, six silica sand mines are up-and-running, and moratoria have so far been enacted by five counties and five cities.

Iowa

Opposition increased rapidly in response to a proposal from Minnesota Sands for a frac sand mine in Allamakee County, Iowa, in October.

Local opponents registered concern about the removal or defacement of scenic hills and the potential noise, silica dust and heavy traffic associated with silica sand mining.

Along with other moratoria, Colorado city residents also won a vote to ban fracking in November.

Wisconsin

Frac sand activity boomed in Wisconsin, however, with a 100%-increase in facilities to more than 100 frac sand sites in 2012 from just a handful in 2011.

These sites include mines, processing plants, and trans-loading stations concentrated in the Maiden rock area, near Chippewa Falls, and in Trempealeau and Monroe counties.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, more than 80 mines and processing facilities are either operating or under construction, with an additional 20 in the proposal stage.

New York

The New York department of environmental conservation (DEC) announced its intention to file a 90-day extension to the deadline for its hydraulic fracturing (fracking) blueprint in November.

The extension was required after a review of the potential hazards associated with the process failed to reach completion before the 29 November cut-off date.

US Silica Holdings

While there is certainly opposition to frac sand-related activities, many advancements have still been made.

US Silica Holdings Inc. is considering buying additional US mines following increased demand for silica sand from energy producers, IM reported in September.

The Maryland-based company, which is the second-largest US producer of silica sand, produced 1.78m tonnes in Q2 2012, of which 685,000 tonnes went to oil and gas markets, while 1.098m went to traditional silica sand users, such as glass makers.

Due to the increased demand caused by the shale gas boom, US Silica sold out of frac sand for the rest of 2012 and said it expects demand to increase by up to 20% per year.

Logistics

As well as causing environmental concern, the US frac sand boom also presented a logistics problem in 2012. Railroads have been becoming congested because of the sheer volume of product that must be shipped to oilfields. In response to this, many companies formed partnerships and agreements in 2012 with local transport services.

IM reported in August that the Canadian National Railway had signed an agreement to haul frac sand from Superior Silica Sand’s new 2.4m tpa frac sand storage facility in Wisconsin, US.

Also during the summer, US Silica joined up with BNSF Railway Co. to build a new 15,000-tonne storage facility in San Antonio, Texas, US.

The company contracted Canadian Pacific to be the exclusive rail service provider for its new frac sand facility in Sparta, Wisconsin, US.

In November, IM reported that Wisconsin Energy Corp. was planning to invest approximately $150m in a natural gas distribution network that will help power Wisconsin’s burgeoning silica sand mining industry.

China

A host of privately-owned Chinese energy companies took part in the latest bidding round for shale gas exploration projects in late October as China looked to cash-in on the unconventional energy source.

China has proven shale gas reserves of 32 trillion cubic feet and consumed 2 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in 2011, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

China has an active ceramic proppant manufacturing industry, but the amount of actual silica sand mining activity is unclear.

Europe

Things took a turn for the better in Europe during in November as a ban on shale gas was blocked as politicians decided to look into a robust regulatory regime to address environmental and other concerns surrounding the gas extraction process.

This approval of shale gas, and therefore fracking, extended to the UK in December as the government prepared to launch a new gas strategy.

A report released by the government in April said that there was “no reason” why fracking should not continue in the UK and later, in October, revealed plans for a targeted tax regime for the shale gas industry.

South East Asia

Finally, IM reported in September that exploration had begun for high- purity silica sand in the South East Asian nation of Brunei Darussalam on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea.

Initial analyses showed that there is a resource of several million tonnes of high-purity silica sand. The resource is at the surface and extends over more than 15km2.