The first signs of the industry came sometime around 2010.
Trains loaded with sand started stopping at rail facilities such as those in Casper and Shoshoni. Crews transloaded the fine grains into trucks, sometimes all in less than 10 minutes.
The trucks carried the sand off to every corner of the state — or in some cases to energy fields in Utah and North Dakota — where it would be used as a key ingredient in hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to produce oil and natural gas.
What was a less-than-common sight back then has become increasingly common in Wyoming today. Companies looking to ship and sell the sand, a vital ingredient in oil and gas wells subject to controversy elsewhere in the country, have multiplied.
The frack sand business is good, companies say. And it’s only expected to get better.
Sand key to fracturing
Silica sand is one of the most important ingredients in one of America’s most controversial practices.
The sand, commonly referred to as frack sand, is used in hydraulic fracturing, an oil and natural gas production technique during which companies pump water, chemicals and the sand into wells to break the earth and free trapped deposits of the minerals.
Frack sand acts as a proppant during the process, helping to hold open small seams through which the oil or gas escapes back toward the wellbore. It’s possible to use man-made products such as ceramics in place of the sand, but the majority of hydraulic fracturing jobs use silica, the naturally occurring agent deemed durable enough and perfectly shaped to perform the task.
But getting the right sand to the right wells can be a challenge.
“You can’t just go and pick some sand up in the Red Desert” of Wyoming, said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
The most ideal sands are found in Midwest sandstone, primarily in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. That means it has to be transported, sometimes more than 1,000 miles, before producers and oilfield service companies active in Wyoming can put it to use. But it’s not always that easy.
Environmental and health concerns pop up as frequently as sand mine proposals in some parts of the Midwest. Some regional governing bodies have taken on the subject, either through a mining moratorium or formal policy taxing the industry. Others have called for intensive environmental and health studies of the sand.
In the summer of 2012, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a health alert on silica.
Tests performed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health showed that workers were exposed to the sand — linked by some to respiratory diseases like silicosis — above recommended limits in nearly 80 percent of tests.
The alert concerned many but surprised few.
But for all the worries, concerns and debate surrounding the commodity in various parts of the country, companies keep shipping frack sand, and numbers keep going up in Wyoming.
The demand continues to grow.
More sand than ever
Dave Nelson says sand became popular in Wyoming sometime around 2010.
As chief financial officer of the Bighorn Divide Wyoming Railroad, Nelson is privy to records detailing what his company ships and unloads. In the past three years, sand has jumped off the page.
“It’s been doubling, tripling or quadrupling year after year,” he said.
The industry first took hold nationally in the early 2000s and quietly grew. As hydraulic fracturing became more common, sand demand shot through the roof.
“It’s all based on what’s happening in the energy field in regards to oil and gas,” Nelson said. “Basically, in Wyoming there’s been an increase in drilling in both natural gas and crude oil. In both cases, that increase has resulted in a greater need for frack sand.”
In 2010, only one company ran a sand operation in a Bighorn Divide rail facility. That company, Nabors Industries, didn’t return calls seeking information.
By 2012, at least two other companies — Preferred Sands and Santrol — had opened shop in one of Bighorn’s properties in Casper or Shoshoni. Preferred has operations at both facilities. Santrol also runs a distribution facility in Rock Springs.
Attempts to reach Santrol spokespeople were unsuccessful. Preferred Sands agreed to answer a series of questions sent via email but didn’t respond to the questions by the Star-Tribune’s deadline.
Nelson said the volume of frack sand passing through his Casper and Shoshoni terminals has dramatically increased in recent years. Crews unloaded 738 cars full of the commodity in the first 10 months of 2012, a 240 percent increase during the same period in 2011, when they unloaded 217.
Each car fits about 200,000 pounds of sand and can be transloaded in a matter of minutes. Oilfield services companies then truck the sand to various well locations both around the state and in other states. Nelson said the number of loaded trucks and rail cars per day varies throughout the year.
Because of limited capacity, Nelson said he’s witnessed cases where sand delivered to Casper was trucked to Utah or the Bakken Shale play in North Dakota, some eight hours away.
“There’s sand going all over,” he said. “They’ll take it everywhere.”
Most sand that goes through Casper or Shoshoni stays in the state, used most often in wells in Converse County.
The future looks bright for frack sand operations
Frack sand shipments in 2013 are already on track to outpace last year’s record numbers.
With several large oil and natural gas projects on the horizon for 2015 or 2016, demand for the fracking ingredient could get even larger.
“I would assume it’s going to be in high demand” by then, Hinchey said.
The growth could help revitalize what was once considered a faltering industry. Nelson said Bighorn is at full rail capacity in Casper, and the company is working to expand its rail there, thanks in part to the emergence of frack sand.
Not bad for a commodity which only became popular three years ago.
“A few years ago were talking about abandoning rail lines around here,” Hinchey said. “Now we’re talking about expanding them.”