Natural gas is a winner in the North American
energy market and is expected to contribute towards 30% of
total energy demand by 2040, leading the country away from
conventional fuels like coal and petroleum.
This was the basis of the opening presentation from Stan Kaplan
at the Energy Information Administration (EIA), at this
years Oilfield Minerals Outlook, held in Houston, Texas,
|Oilfield Minerals Outlook delegates gathered in
Houston for the third year running.
Credit: Norm Lanier
Kaplan, who is the EIAs director of the office of
electricity, renewables and uranium statistics, explained that
the market for natural gas is expected to increase in coming
years, with shale gas contributing an ever-increasing portion
of this total.
This is expected to significantly increase the demand for
oilfield minerals including barite, bentonite, hectorite, frac sand and graphite.
Kaplan also noted that the growing use of shale gas falls in
line with government-backed efforts to decrease the amount of
carbon-intensive fuels used in a move towards a
greener energy mix.
Interestingly, these government policies, coupled with
technology innovations, could lead to a reduction in energy
demand by 2040.
Electricity sales have decreased in five of the last
six years. Prior to 2000, sales declined only once in 50
years, Kaplan told delegates, adding that while overall
energy demand is likely to reduce, the percentage of shale gas
contributing to the overall energy mix by this time will lead
growth in total gas production, with the possibility of
reaching half of total US output.
Bentonite has been, and is expected to continue to be, an
important mineral for the oilfield industry. This mineral, also
known as fullers earth, is used in both conventional and
unconventional drilling, including hydraulic fracturing
Bentonite can be used to cool and lubricate the drill bit,
remove cuttings from the bottom of the well, seal the borehole
and stabilise the well bore without damaging the formation.
Also speaking at the conference in Houston, Sue Shaw, a
senior analyst at Roskill Information Services, outlined just
how important shale gas market growth will be for bentonite,
outlining that the drilling muds market is currently the fourth
largest consumer of this mineral.
Demand from drilling muds increased 4% per annum over
the last decade and is one of the largest growing end uses for
bentonite, Shaw explained to delegates.
Historically, drilling consistently accounted for just over
20% of US bentonite consumption, Shaw added, until recent
increases of up to almost 30%.
Using 2012 figures, Shaw outlined that global demand for
bentonite stands at around 23m tonnes.
However, while the demand for bentonite in the oilfield is
increasing year-on-year, alternatives are creeping on to the
market, with hectorite remaining a prime example of a natural
product that may be used in harsher oilfield conditions (higher
depth and temperature, for example).
Jay Chmelauskas, president of Western Lithium USA Corp. and
Hectatone Inc., spoke in more depth about this alternative
mineral at Oilfield Minerals Outlook 2014, highlighting its
suitability for more complex oil and gas drilling environments
associated with horizontal and deep drilling methods, such as
The company is developing a Hectatone line of organoclays
which will be processed at a plant in Nevada, US, that will
also be able to dry other clays, including bentonite. This is
expected to be commissioned in autumn this year.
While day one of the conference focused on drilling minerals
including barite and bentonite, day two saw presentations from
several members of the frac sand industry, which has received a
lot of airtime owing to its use in the fracking process, where
it is used to prop open fractures made in shale rock to aid the
extraction of natural oil and gas.
Frac sand takes up approximately 80% of the total proppant
market with a 10% share belonging to ceramic proppants,
most often comprised of sintered bauxite or kaolin, and the
other 10% to resin coated versions of sand or ceramic
However, while this is the industry standard
market split, Taylor Robinson, president of PLG Consulting,
told delegates that the use of natural sand as a proppant is
actually on the rise thanks to new stimulation techniques,
while ceramic and resin coated volumes are down.
The ratio of proppant use has actually shifted towards
more natural sand overall sometimes 100%, he
According to Thomas Dolley at the US Geological Survey, who
spoke to IM on the side lines of the
conference, the US frac sand market hit 30m tonnes in 2012,
with the majority produced in Wisconsin, Minnesota and
Around 90 frac sand mines are now operational in Wisconsin,
Robinson outlined, while 15 remain in development, 15 are
permitted, 16 are proposed, 5 stalled and 3 inactive.
However, while frac sand is famed within the oilfield
industry as a key component of unconventional extraction, it
has also found fame for the wrong reasons owing to its fine
Carrie Tuit, senior environmental chemist at Gradient,
provided a detailed overview of how a certain type of sand,
respirable crystalline silica, can pose health risks
including silicosis and lung cancer.
In response to an increased amount of activity in the frac
sand industry, several industry bodies are now working on
crystalline silica classification, including the US
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has proposed updated
crystalline silica safety standards aimed at reducing the risks
of working in an environment where silica particles are
OSHA has proposed a new permitted exposure level (PEL) for
respirable crystalline silica as well as new provisions for
measuring how much silica workers are exposed to.
IM Research has recently published a report
Chinas Proppants Market: Raw material, supply &
You can also download a free proppants
infographic wall chart on indmin.com.