Frac sand, a specific type of silica sand, is a durable,
round grain, crush-resistant material produced for use in the
hydraulic fracturing process (more widely known as fracking).
It is this process that has put frac sand on the proverbial
map, as governments around the world begin to roll out new
energy schemes including fracking, which are in turn boosting
the call for this industrial mineral.
Increased demand for
hydraulic fracturing sand in support of production of natural
gas from shale gas deposits has led to production capacity
upgrades and ongoing permitting and opening of numerous new
mines, the US Geological Survey (USGS) industrial sand
and gravel report for 2012 outlined.
Fracking is used to gather natural
energy sources, such as oil, natural gas and natural gas
liquids, from underground rock units that lack adequate pore
space for these fluids to flow into a well.
Hydraulic fracturing generates
fractures in shale rock by drilling a well, sealing the portion
of the well in the energy source-bearing zone, and pumping
through a mixture of frac sand and fracking fluid under high
pressure into that portion of the well.
Fracking fluid is made up of water
(98%), mixed with proppants (1.9693%) and small amounts of
agents, including acid, biocide, corrosion inhibitor, iron
control, friction reducer and scale inhibitor. As well as frac
sand, fracking fluid contains other industrial minerals
including bentonite, calcium chloride, sodium chloride, calcium
carbonate and magnesium chloride.
The fracking fluid creates a
viscous gel which facilitates the waters ability to carry
grains of frac sand in suspension. Billions of frac sand grains
are carried into the fractures made by the pumping action. The
frac sand is used to prop open fractures; this is why
sand is referred to as a proppant material.
While all frac sand is silica sand,
not all silica sand is suitable as frac sand. This is because
not all silica sand is able to withstand the high pressure
durability required for propping open the fractures created in
In order to help fracking companies
to choose sand which is fit for purpose, the American Petroleum
Institute (API) has published a set of frac sand
specifications, which can be used as a guide as to which sand
deposits are suitable for fracking and which are not.
These specifications mean that
suitable silica sand deposits are limited. The specifications
are expressed in mesh size, roundness/sphericity, crush
resistance, quartz content (SiO2), bulk density,
specific gravity, solubility in acid and turgidity.
A brief summary of the main API
recommendations can be seen in Table 1 below.
Frac sand locations
The worlds largest producer
of frac sand is the US, where a fracking boom is driving demand
for this mineral.
Luckily for the US, high purity
quartz sands are common on its shores, and many of these
deposits are currently being exploited. However, not all of
this sand is easily extractable, meaning some deposits have
been abandoned while others are so remotely located that
logistics costs render them commercially unviable (see
That said, there are still many
deposits that are commercially viable.
The most notable deposits of
API-grade frac sand can be found in sandstone formations such
as the St. Peter (or Ottawa) sandstone (primarily mined in
Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri), the Jordan
sandstone (Minnesota and Wisconsin), and the Hickory sandstone
Within the US, Wisconsin is leading
the fore in the production of frac sand. Wisconsin has become
the US top frac sand hub of activity (see
IM October 2012), showing a 100% increase
in frac sand activity between 2011 and 2012, growing from just
a handful of facilities to more than 100 frac sand sites.
Data from the USGS highlights that
Wisconsin ranked third in total US industrial silica sand
production in 2010 at 3.39m tonnes, accounting for 11.3%, after
Illinois (4.37m tonnes, 15%) and Texas (3.61m tonnes, 12.5%).
In terms of frac sand production, the state is in pole
The amount of activity within
Wisconsin has increased dramatically since 2011, when the
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) identified
41 facilities operating or proposed in the state. As of July
2012, figures had increased to 87 permitted sites (51
operational, 36 in development) and 20 sites at the proposed
Now, under a year later, things
have progressed even further, highlighting that growth within
the Wisconsin frac sand industry is not showing any signs of
The most recent data from the
WCIJs investigations, which dates 1 May 2013, now shows a
total of 92 permitted sites (72 operational, 20 in development)
and a further 36 at the proposed stage (see Table
One of the states initiatives
to increase frac sand mining activity was announced in January
2013, when the state governor, Scott Walker, announced that
Wisconsins Department of Natural Resources could soon
have a specialist that would focus on helping potential frac
sand miners navigate the rules and state processes.
The [new DNR] staff position
will speed up the process for frac sand oversight and
regulation of frac sand mining, Walker explained.
The states largest frac sand
mining and processing facility, located in Trempealeau County,
was approved in April after a nine-hour public hearing and
The Trempealeau County Environment
and Land Use Committee approved Michigan-based Sand Products
Wisconsins plans to open a 716-acre (2.9km2)
mining, processing and railroad loading facility (see Table
Another company operating in the
state is Northern Frac Proppants LLC (NFP), which recently
acquired an area of land containing frac sand reserves and a
processing site in Wisconsin as part of a newly-announced
supply agreement with Goose Landing Sand Co., LLC.
As part of the acquisition, NFP
will gain access to premium Northern White frac sand reserves,
which have an estimated life of more than 25 years. NFP has
already begun to mine, process and sell the sand under
previously-signed supply agreements.
The land, situated on 1,600 acres
(6.5km2) near Black River Falls, is located on Class
1 rail which will help the company overcome the often costly
logistics problem associated with the delivery of frac sand to
the oil and gas basins where it is required.
Jeff Alston, president of NFP, said
that the acquisition of the Goose Landing property and frac
sand reserves is in keeping with NFPs plans to
increase our reserve base and build processing facilities in
key geographic locations to better serve our customers with
low-cost, high-quality Northern White frac sand
We are pleased to enter into
this agreement with Northern Frac Proppants, an emerging player
in the supply of high quality frac sand proppant to the oil and
gas industry, added James Hoffman, president of Goose
Preferred Sands LLC, which has two
frac sand mines and one processing facility in Wisconsin, has
recently launched a new bulk proppant distribution service,
aimed at reducing the costly logistics problem.
Preferred Pipeline was born
from a growing need for a consolidated industry distribution
network, Michael ONeill, CEO of Preferred Sands,
As the energy market has
grown and matured, the supply chain has remained fractured,
with proppant companies controlling their own distribution
networks. This has caused a growing number of inefficiencies
and skyrocketing fees, he added.
The cost of transporting frac sand,
which is a high bulk, low cost mineral, has been an expensive
problem for suppliers working in the oilfields industry for a
number of years.
In a bid to further ease the
logistics costs for frac sand companies, a portion of the
Wisconsin state budget will include additional money to upgrade
the states rail system.
If you have good roads and
bridges with maintenance that will make it easier when it comes
to not only frac sand but also manufacturing sites and dairy
farms and anyone else that depends on a reliable transportation
industry, Walker added.
The budget for the improvements
will come from government cuts made over the past few years,
which have made around $342m available.
Further frac sand
While Wisconsin is leading in frac
sand developments at present, this is largely down to the fact
that other areas of the US, such as Illinois and Minnesota, are
struggling to get facilities off the ground due to government
These two states have significant
potential in terms of API-grade frac sand reserves, yet
opposition to mine development is holding developers back.
Among the reasons behind these
objections are concerns over noise and air pollution; water
contamination; heavy site traffic and danger to the natural
Minnesotas state senate
committee approved a one-year moratorium on new silica sand
mines - most of which areÊaimed atÊsourcing frac
sand - in March. The Senate Energy and Environment Committee
passed the bill despite industry objections, launching a
state-wide study on the potential health and environmental
impacts associated with frac sand mining.
The study could also authorise
local governments to tax companies that mine, transport or
process frac sand.
In Wabasha, Minnesota, the City
Council has also voted in favour of two frac sand mining
moratoria. The move came following recommendations by the
towns planning commission after concerns were raised
about heavy truck traffic.
Two already-established Wabasha
frac sand operations transport sand through the
communitys west side to a rail loading facility.
The first moratorium halts new frac
sand operations and the second limits the existing operations
to 30 heavy truck trips a day.
Illinois, which also contains
significant frac sand resources, has been plagued with the same
The city of St Charles saw
opposition to frac sand mining in January as a group of
concerned residents gathered in the public offices to ask the
city board to immediately ban all frac sand mining, processing
and transportation within the town.
The residents hope to block plans
from Minnesota Proppants LLC for a 3m tpa frac sand processing
and transportation facility in the city, as well as any other
silica sand projects.
The council voted to take no action
until information from the citys planning and zoning
board has been received. Officials will then review all
regulations regarding mining operations in St Charles, it
Illinois has also faced local
opposition to a frac sand mine under development by Mississippi
Three environmental groups have
launched a legal case against the state in response to the
project, which has already been approved by state agencies to
receive three permits to move forward with the mine.
Two of those permits have already
been issued, but the third, from the states Environmental
Protection Agency, has been approved but has not yet been
Frac sand concerns do not stop at
extraction, as a growing amount of opposition to the fracking
process is also mounting - not only in the US, but across other
areas of the world too.
However, due to the global
requirement for new and less carbon intensive energy sources,
governments around the world are expected to continue to
promote the need for frac sand resources in order to supply the
growing oilfield industry - as they are beginning to do in
states such as Wisconsin.
It is expected that as environmental reports - like those
being undertaken in Illinois and Minnesota - are published,
further frac sand developments will go ahead, only adding to
the growing list already present in Wisconsin.