Prime Meridian enters a growing market with Hallmark ceramic proppants purchase

By Kasia Patel
Published: Friday, 21 November 2014

IM spoke to the Canadian junior, which hopes to gain a strategic foothold in the region through the majority acquisition and expansion of Indian ceramics proppants producer, Hallmark, about trends in the proppants market and where new demand is expected to come from.

TSX-V listed Prime Meridian Resources Corp. is in the process of acquiring a majority interest in a ceramic proppants producer in India, Hallmark Minerals Pvt Ltd.

The Canadian company signed two binding letters of intent (LOI) with Hallmark, which is located 200km southeast of Mumbai in Pune. It has its own range of ceramic proppants which it has patented, developed, produced and sold in India.

The deal forms part of Prime’s strategic plan to build a globally integrated proppants company, and Michael Dehn, Prime’s president, told IM that the company feels India and the surrounding regions represent some of the best growth opportunities over the next five to 10 years.

"It’s got a booming oil and gas industry, the fracking side of its industry is quite immature and will require tremendous expansion," Dehn said.

Hallmark minerals_PRIME MERIDIAN 
Hallmark is already an established ceramic proppants supplier in India.

"We’re coming into a sector where it’s not commonplace to be fracking and much of the equipment is not up to North American standards. Hallmark has proven itself to a have a superior proppant product already in production in India, so we’re buying into an established and well respected business in an industry that’s growing very rapidly," he added.

Under the terms of the agreement, the first LOI allows Prime to acquire a 10% share of the Indian Company for Canadian dollar (C$) 500,000 ($440,700*). The second LOI allows it to acquire a further 50% interest by either expanding the production of Hallmark by an extra 25,000 tpa, or by completing maximum capital expenditure of C$7m.

Dominating the region

Prime’s global strategy is to integrate the elements of the proppant value chain with a focus on which type of proppant best serves the needs of each region.

Hallmark’s current proppant capacity is at 10,000 tpa including lightweight, intermediate strength and high strength. The first phase of expansion will be to grow the existing plant by 5,000 tonnes, while the second phase will include the building of a new plant with a production capacity of 20,000 tpa.

"The reason we are doing this transaction is because we feel there is increasing demand in the region and frac sand is not so plentiful as it is in North America, otherwise we wouldn’t be carrying out this aggressive expansion," Dehn told IM.

"Our goal will really be to dominate the Indian Ocean region because there are all sorts of new projects coming on stream in the Middle East, East Africa as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean, markets which India is very well located to service," he added.

Dehn said the company has plans to transplant the existing Indian technology into Africa, the Middle East and Australia, which will enable Prime to gain a strategic foothold for the future.

Working together with Hallmark, Prime will have a competitive advantage in the region, as Hallmark is the only existing ceramic proppants producer in India, currently sourcing the bauxite and kaolin used in its product locally.

According to Dehn, production from the rest of the region is limited, which will enable Prime and Hallmark to meet local demand in the region from strategic locations. He explained that China has around 30 ceramic proppants producers, a few in Russia and one expected to come on stream in Poland.

"Hopefully you’ll see us with production of over 100,000 tonnes in India, and then from that beachhead expanding to places where the market is expected to grow very quickly but not yet be big enough for the likes of Carbo or Fairmont to get into." Dehn told IM.

"If we can get into those markets early with 20-50,000 tonnes, for example Kenya will probably need a lot of supply for the next five or 10 years to meet the local demand, so if we can keep doing that in strategic locations then we will be ahead of everyone else," he added.

Cooking up new recipes

Prime is also in the process of testing frac sand and advanced materials for proppant suitability from three projects: frac sand from the Peace River Frac Sand joint venture (JV) in Western Canada; titanium/iron from the Dissimieux Lake JV in Quebec; and silica from the Chambord JV, also in Quebec (all under options from Phoenix Metals.

Dehn told IM that testing was progressing well, and that Prime’s main focus will be deep wells, which it sees as an opportunity as it says there are not many other companies targeting this area.

"Development of the projects will be market driven more than technology driven, as the technology seems to be going very well," Dehn outlined. "We will really cater to what the market expectation is for material – we have to know that the customers want a specific product and that’s what the next plant will be, as opposed to what we think is the best product for the market."

Proppant market expected to almost double

 North American proppant forecast
 North American proppant forecast

Owing to the expected growth in unconventional gas production, according to Markets and Markets the proppant market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.7% from 2014 to 2019.

In 2013, the size of the proppant market was estimated at around 45.12m tonnes and is projected to reach 84.2m tonnes by 2019, an estimated value of $19.02bn.

An increase in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) worldwide has driven up demand for frac sand, sintered bauxite and kaolin, the main components of oilfield proppants, which are used to literally prop open fractures blasted into shale rock formations.

As a result of its shale gale, the US’ requirement for frac sand, ceramic proppants and resin-coated versions of each has grown from around 5m tonnes in 2007 to 34.7m tonnes in 2013, according to IM’s China’s Proppants market report.

At present, according the IM Research report, frac sand takes up approximately 80-85% of the market share by volume, with ceramic proppants and resin-coated versions taking 10-15%. By value, however, ceramic proppants take a 50% share of the market.

According to Dehn, increased activity in the Bakken Shale Play in North Dakota js driving demand for ceramic proppants and as companies move on to deeper wells, demand is expected to grow further.

"The overall figure in North America historically is that the ceramic proppants account for around 10% of the proppants market. I think this year the Bakken might keep it at that figure, otherwise it might be less than 10% if it wasn’t for the Bakken," Dehn told IM.

"But we definitely expect that to go up in the future – the North East is going deeper and in Pennsylvania and Ohio and everyone’s been going after the cheap and easy wells which are the shallow wells, so now the next targets will all be intermediate and deep, which means that frac sand will not have the same effect," Dehn explained. "You’re looking at resin coated sands for being a potential intermediate solution and then ceramic proppant for deep."

Unconventional gas production forecast 
 Source: EIA, LUKOIL estimates

Logistical challenges

In the current market, one of the biggest challenges for Prime Meridian has been project financing.

"Stock market conditions for junior mining companies is the biggest headache because everything else, raw materials have been easy to source for us, energy prices have come down so are costs are looking even lower," Dehn told IM.

"Logistics I guess would be the other challenge and maybe not as much in India as it would be in North America, and this is more applicable to the frac sand industry even more than it is in ceramics," Dehn added.

Tightness in the frac sand market throughout 2014 occurred mainly due to logistical constraints, as frac sand supply in general was not problematic at frac sand mines, but rather at the wells where it was needed.

"Waiting time now for new railcars to come to market is long, and the storage along the rail lines is not very complete or very well matured except in certain regions," Dehn told IM.

"This means the production is coming right from the plant in a dump truck and right to the well head which is not an ideal situation except for the manufacturer, but the guy who is drilling is always waiting for product to show up at the well and that causes all sorts of standby costs for the drilling companies and the finishing companies," he added.

As a result, Prime is looking at different solutions to overcome logistical constraints in the future.

"These solutions are not really portable but they’re able to be moved to a different well location and that’s going to based on market demand – where you’re going to have to have your storage – because we can’t count on sending 50 or 100 dump trucks to a well head. We have to basically have a warehousing solution for the proppant near where the customers are," Dehn said.

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