A huge boost in demand for frac sand for
use in oilfields in West Texas is putting pressure on local
trucking capacity, with drivers in short supply.
"If you released all the convicts in Texas
prisons you wouldn’t have enough drivers," Joel
Schneyer, director of minerals consultancy Headwaters, told
Industrial Minerals. "I’m not aware of a way
around the problem."
Frac sand usage has rebounded strongly in
2017 and is set to grow further next year, largely due to an
increase in oilfield activity.
As of November 3, there were 380 active
oil rigs in the Permian oil basin in West Texas, according to
oilfield services company Baker Hughes.
This is up from just 132 rigs in April
2016, reflecting both a more stable oil price and increased
confidence that fracking projects can be made profitable even
when oil dips below $50 per barrel. The front-month West Texas
Intermediate oil price stands around $57 per bbl.
But sand demand is also being driven by a
shift in fracking philosophy, with oil companies increasingly
focusing on "touching more rock," meaning getting as much sand
down the hole as possible.
Horizontal wells are getting longer, with
slickwater technology allowing proppants to be pumped further
underground. The amount of proppant per foot of drilled well
has also been rapidly increasing.
The US Energy Information Service sees
2016 frac sand demand at just 37 million short tons while most
of the industry expects 2017 consumption at more than 80
With millions of new tonnages to be
delivered, the pressure on the trucking industry is
"Definitely there is a squeeze starting to
happen as these Texas mines start up," Chris Tucker, director
of business development at Resource Logistics, said. "As this
happens, we’re seeing limitations on driver
Resource Logistics handles sand logistics
and delivery of frac sand, along with commodity broking
services, but does not have its own truck fleet.
The shortage of truckers is a recurring
theme that was brought up by several attendees at Industrial
Mineral’s Frac Sand Conference in Denver in
The president of one major frac sand
producer painted a gloomy picture of truck availability, noting
that the rebounding chemical sector along the Gulf Coast, as
well as the reconstruction work in Houston after Hurricane
Harvey, would draw drivers away from the remote West Texas
But there is room to streamline
operations, with frackers increasingly sourcing sand supply
from local mines rather than rail depots, Tucker
"You’ll have more efficient
use of routes, as you pull from the nearest mine," he said.
"Instead of pulling from different rail terminals
you’ll be pulling all of that production from one
And Headwaters' Schneyer points out that a
shift toward boxed sand systems could help reduce bottlenecks,
allowing sand to be loaded over a broader area. This would
reduce the queues at rail depots, which has been a bane for the
"One of the advantages of these infield
boxes is that in effect you can have fewer drivers but they're
always working," he noted. "There are fewer drivers required
because peak is lower."