On a square of clay and gravel about 40 miles north of downtown Denver, Joel Fox’s colleagues are starting a frack on an oil well. Fox — who runs fracking operations for Encana Corp., a $9 billion oil and gas company — points to the action we’ll be able to see from our safe distance.
“Once they start the sand,” he says, “you’ll see it coming out of that hopper.”
The hopper is connected to a Sand King — which looks like a giant purple dumpster, 40 feet long, one end tilted into the air.
Seconds later, we see sand flowing into a trough that feeds a giant blender, which mixes the sand with water. Together, they’ll get pumped into the well, shattering the shale rock below ground.
Over the next hour or so, the Sand King will dump about 100 tons of sand into the blender. All the while, trucks move in and out of the well site, with 25-ton partial-refills for the Sand King.
Fox will repeat this process 20 times for a single well.
“So, what’s that? 2,000 tons in a well,” he says, doing some quick calculations. “And I got seven wells.”
That’s just on one site north of Denver, a two- or three-week fracking operation.
Multiply that out by more than 20,000 wells fracked in a year, according to PacWest Consulting Partners, which tracks the oil and gas industries. It comes to more than 100 billion pounds.
Thanks to the fracking revolution, sand — one of the most common substances on earth — has become a $10 billion industry. At times, some oil and gas producers have not been able to get enough. Even with low oil prices likely to mean less drilling in the next year, the question with sand is whether the oil industry’s demand will stay the same, or go up.
At the wellhead, Fox explains just what the sand and the water do in the well.
“The water provides the force to crack the rock open,” he says. The pressure – 5,000 pounds per square inch – makes tiny cracks in the rock, flows into them, and brings the sand with it.
“And then when I flow the well back,” says Fox, meaning, he pulls the water back out. “I leave the sand in the fractures.”
The sand keeps these tiny little fractures propped open, so Fox’s colleagues can suck the oil out through them.
The "frac sand" business has grown to the point where several companies have gone public. The biggest players will win over time, says Brandon Dobell, an analyst who follows the oil and gas industry for William Blair and Co. He thinks scale and coordination will be critical, like it was for FedEx and UPS.
“When overnight delivery started, you had a bunch of companies doing overnight delivery,” he says. Now there are two. “And the reason there’s two is because it’s really difficult to get a package from Point A to Point B in a very short amount of time, no matter where the Point A or Point B is, and no matter how big or small that package is.”
The comparison is more direct than it may seem: Delivering packages on time is a big part of what sand companies do. In this case, the packages are 25-ton truckloads. Over the course of two or three weeks, Fox will use 560 truckloads of sand at his seven wells north of Denver.
If the trucks don’t show up on time, then workers here — there are dozens, scheduled in shifts that go around the clock — sit around waiting. So do the Sand Kings (there are three) and the blender, the truck-size pumps (there are 10) and everything else.
According to PacWest, transportation can account for about two-thirds of the price that operators like Fox pay for sand. Some sand companies control railcars and loading facilities, as well as mines.
However, supply has been the first concern.
“You would think: ‘There’s sand everywhere. How can there not be enough supply?’" says Dobell. "Well, this sand’s different. And it’s only in a couple of places.”
The best sand for fracking is called Northern White. It comes from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and especially Wisconsin. The rush to grab it has turned some rural areas inside out.
That sand rush may continue, and the business may keep growing, despite low oil prices, because Fox uses sand conservatively. Dobell describes what other producers have been finding: “Shoving a lot of sand down into each frack generates a lot more oil production.” That means some companies now put two to five times as much sand into each well.
Sand is expensive, but it’s a small part of the total cost of a fracking operation. “They’re using the same days on drill, and they’re using the same equipment,” says Dobell, “but they’re putting a lot more sand in, and they’re going to get a lot more oil out.”
PacWest does not factor this trend into its projections. “We’ve been extremely conservative,” says Samir Nangia, the PacWest principal who oversees sand-industry estimates. His numbers for the next two years show demand as steady — neither growing substantially, nor shrinking.