Mining News

Frack Sand

Posted by Cheryl Rutledge on 8/7/2014 4:08:59 PM

By Joshua Allsop and Kenneth Green

If oil is black gold then “frack sand” is gold dust. When most people think of mining they think about precious metals such as gold or silver. Because sand is used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), demand for sand has increased. Fracking technology has been developing very quickly over the last decade and increased efficiencies have given greater yields from the oil wells.

The first experiments for fracking were in 1947, and the process became commercially available after 1949. To extract natural gas out of shale, miners use a fracking solution that contains water, various chemicals and sand.

Thanks to the shale gas boom in the United States, 95% silica sand known as “Northern White” has become one of the most sought after commodities among energy companies. In 2002, there were just 58 horizontal drill rigs in North America. Today, that number has skyrocketed to over 1,100 and growing. Canada produced a total of 173 billion barrels of oil last year, from which 168 were produced through fracking.

America is set to become self-sufficient in natural gas and could become a big exporter, boosting its economy, while gas substituting for coal in electricity generation has sent carbon emissions plunging. But extracting shale gas is controversial. Opponents claim that fracking and other consequences of extracting shale gas harm the environment through poor practices, leading to water pollution, methane leakage and seismic activity, as well as the industrialisation of the countryside—and big investments are being made in a fossil fuel rather than renewable energy.

In his new book “The Frackers”, Gregory Zuckerman says of the late George Mitchell, a pioneer of the technique of hydraulic fracturing to tap “unconventional” reserves of oil and gas, that “his impact eventually might even approach that of Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell.”

Along with sand, the aluminum, iron and steel industries are also taking advantage of cheap gas supplies. New plants and smelters are able to make use of the cheap energy and abundant oil supply. BASF has announced plans to build a “world scale” ammonia plant on the Gulf Coast.

Drilling for oil and natural gas in shale rock is supporting 1.7 million U.S. jobs this year, including workers outside the energy industry such as waiters and shop clerks, according to researcher IHS Global Insight. The report goes on to say that as well as providing jobs in its own right fracking will be supporting 400,000 jobs in manufacturing in 2015 and 500,000 jobs, or 4.2% of total manufacturing employment, in 2025.

It is clear that the benefits of fracking extend into the mining sector. Sand of the right size, shape, and strength is one of the “proppants” used in oil and gas fracking. Supplies are getting tighter, prices rising, and competition for competing uses is increasing. So long as the frack boom continues though, sand-mining should remain a bright-spot in the mining sector.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Frackers are expected to use nearly 95 billion pounds of sand this year, up nearly 30% from 2013 and up 50% from forecasts made by energy-consulting firm PacWest Consulting Partners a year ago.”

Sand quality and size is imperative to the process:

“The best sand is dubbed Northern White because the round crystal, which can withstand serious heat and pressure underground, is found in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. The company expects demand for sand will be at least 25% higher than supply for the rest of this year.”

In recent times mining has suffered due to low commodity prices globally. It is refreshing to see part of the sector achieving success. Read the whole thing here.

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