Wipe Out! - Putting Frac Sand Supply, Demand and Prices in Perspective

The accelerating trend toward high-intensity completions in the Permian, SCOOP/STACK, Marcellus/Utica, Haynesville and other key shale plays is sharply increasing demand for frac sand. As a result, there's upward pressure on sand prices and there are shortages of certain grades of sand that may continue into 2018.  There is also increased interest in developing sand mines near production areas. It’s important to remember, though, that (1) there’s no evidence that sand-supply issues will seriously curtail drilling and completion activity, and (2) higher sand costs can be offset by the production gains that usually come from using a lot more sand. Today we continue our surfing-themed series on sand costs and water-disposal expenses with a look at the forecast for 2017-18 demand for frac sand, sand pricing trends, efforts to develop regional sand supply sources and the bottom-line upside of high-intensity completions.

Freeing the vast amounts of oil, gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs) trapped in shale and tight sands requires horizontal drilling to access the long, horizontal layers where the trapped hydrocarbons reside.  In addition, a mix of water, other liquids and proppant (natural sand, ceramics and resin-coated sand) is forced out of perforated pipe in the horizontal portion of the well bore at high pressure to fracture openings in the surrounding shale/tight sands. When the pressure is released, the fractures attempt to close but the proppant contained in the fluids keeps them open, making a ready path for oil, gas, NGLs and produced water to flow into the well bore.

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In Part 1 of this blog series, we discussed how the trend toward much longer laterals and high-intensity well completions has significantly increased the volume of frac sand being used, with some individual well completions using enough sand to fill 100 railcars or more. We also noted that an even bigger concern for many producers is the rising cost of disposing of produced water — that is, the water that emerges with hydrocarbons from these supersized wells. (We’ll zero in on rising water-disposal costs in the series’ next episode.) In Part 2, we discussed the evolution of frac sand use, including ongoing shifts in the types of sand that are preferred and in the volume of sand being used in each type of well. Then we considered sand logistics — which, given that the most in-demand sand is mined in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota), account for a significant share of total sand costs — and lay out the challenges that producers face in securing the sand they need while minimizing costs.

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