Juniors seek near-term cash flow as the fracking demand for sand expands
by Greg Klein
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It’s the stuff that opened up—or more literally, holds open—the unconventional oil and gas deposits that have revolutionized the energy industry. As frac sand demand continues to increase, explorers have taken on the task of finding and developing new projects. In many cases they’re Canadian companies finding Canadian sources for Canadian customers.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s best known, involves pumping a high-pressure mix, often about 90% water and 9.5% sand or other proppants, to create cracks or fissures in otherwise impermeable rock. Proppants prop open the fissures, allowing gas and oil recovery. The process has undergone major advancements since its 1947 introduction and, more recently, has become vital to extraction of shale oil and gas, and coal bed methane. In 2012 Industrial Minerals credited the process for 90% of U.S. wells supplying 30% of American oil and natural gas production. By March of that year, Texas-based Cadre Proppants had sold a billion pounds of sand in just six months.
Numbers released by PacWest Consulting Partners in December foresee 8% annual growth in American land proppant demand, “from 63 billion pounds in 2013 to 75 billion pounds in 2015.” These aren’t uniform commodities but, PacWest stated, the competitors—resin-coated sand and synthetic ceramic proppants—are losing market share to lower-cost natural silica sand.
The boom affects transportation too, especially railways. In December CN TSX:CNR president/CEO Claude Mongeau stated, “Over the past five years, CN’s frac sand market has grown by nearly 300%, rising to more than 50,000 carloads in 2013.”
How much sand is that? According to U.S. Silica Holdings NYE:SLCA president/CEO Bryan Shinn, quoted by the Wall Street Journal in December, “It takes 25 railcars of sand, on average, to frack one well.”
2012 prices cited by Industrial Minerals range between $60 and $200 a tonne, depending on size and quality.
Wisconsin is widely credited with producing about 75% of American supply and a big chunk of Canada’s too. One vertically integrated Wisconsin miner, Calgary-headquartered Source Energy Services, has Q1 plans to open Canada’s largest frac sand storage and distribution facility near Grande Prairie, Alberta. Capable of unloading 100 railcars of sand in less than a day, the Wembley terminal will be one of four new facilities the company intends to open this year. That will bring its total up to 15 along a 4,800-kilometre network from northern British Columbia to southern Texas.
Canadian sources mostly consist of “private producers scattered around the Prairies,” according to Chris Healey, VP of operations for Rainmaker Mining TSXV:RMG. In January his company signed a letter of intent for the 1,471-hectare Jayjay Lake project in northern Saskatchewan and a purchase and sale agreement for two other northern Saskatchewan properties totalling 10,275 hectares. On February 5 another LOI came through for the 24,363-hectare Peace River project in northern Alberta.
“We’re not stopping there,” Healey says. He hopes to see Rainmaker “move to the next level by becoming a producer, either by developing one of our properties to production as quickly as possible or potentially buying a producer. We’re developing our company as a pure frac sand play.”
Among the attractions of the frac sand space are “the potential for market growth, which is substantial, and the ability to acquire assets near customers at reasonable costs.”
Rainmaker’s access to road and rail also has Healey encouraged. “Transportation is one of the key factors in a location, offering proximity to end users,” he says.
The cost of exploration is reasonable too, compared to other commodities. “It’s simple technology to drill into the sand,” Healey points out. “The Jayjay Lake property is an old beach from the glacial lake that covered the Prairies up to 10,000 years ago. You can dig into it with a shovel, a backhoe or a post hole auger. The Peace River property will probably be a bit harder but not particularly hard. We can still use an auger to drill test.”
Patrick Kluczny agrees. A project geologist/manager with Dahrouge Geological Consulting, he was instrumental in evaluating the Peace River project for the vendors, Zimtu Capital TSXV:ZC and its partner.
Unlike other mineral deposits, frac sand is loosely consolidated so there’s no need for core drilling. “We can use an auger drill, which means that the costs of exploration will be a lot lower,” Kluczny says. “Auger programs are on an order of magnitude cheaper than core programs. Also these deposits pretty much have to be close to surface.”
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