Utah drillers import fracking sand from Wisconsin, but there may a cheaper place to buy it right inside the Beehive State

(Photo courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey) Utah sand dunes, like this one pictured in Kane County, could produce sand needed to frack oil and gas wells. Energy developers import vast amounts of sand from the Upper Midwest, prompting prospectors to explore sources like this one closer to Western oil fields.

A trainload of sand, enough to fill 50 or more rail cars, can disappear down a single bore hole when drillers frack oil and gas wells in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin.

They mix the sand with the fluids and chemicals injected underground to fracture rock formations and unlock the hydrocarbons they contain. Industry has discovered that more sand results in higher yields. Getting the sand is not easy or cheap, but relief might be on the horizon.

Utah energy developers must acquire their “frac sand” from Wisconsin quarries, which hold an abundance of clean silica grains of the right size, shape and hardness, a material known as “northern white.” But now alternative sources are under exploration in southern Utah’s Kane County, potentially opening the West’s first major quarries of sand needed for fracking operations.

A 12,000-acre area in Kane County could yield enough to meet the needs for Utah energy developers for 40 to 50 years, according to energy industry representatives speaking last month at Gov. Gary Herbert’s Energy Summit in Salt Lake City.

“We have some of the best frac sand in the country,” J.T. Martin, president of Salt Lake City-based Integrated Energy Cos., told conference attendees. “We are calling this ‘Utah pink Champagne.’ The Wisconsins have nothing on us.”

Martin’s firms provide oil-field, transportation and marketing services to Utah’s oil and gas industry. He said one, Integrated Sands LLC, controls claims and leases for sand on 12,000 acres of state trust and federal lands in Kane County, which it hopes to develop.

Officials with the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, are pleased with the prospect of producing such sand from its holdings, which in turn would support oil and gas production from its mineral holdings in the Uinta Basin.

“I am thrilled Utah is finally looking at home for frac sand. It’s our job to get these things in production,” said Tom Faddies, who oversees mineral production for the state agency that manages land to raise money for schools.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become a controversial drilling method over concerns it imperils groundwater, but it is credited with spurring a surge in domestic oil and gas production. The industry’s use of sand has soared, prompting drillers to accept greater variation in the sand used, according to Faddies.

The Great Lakes region produces 70 percent of the nation’s sand for fracking, with Wisconsin accounting for half the total. Transportation represents more than half the sand’s cost at the wellhead.

Locally sourced frac sand could not only save industry millions in transportation costs, but also bring economic benefits to another corner of rural Utah.

“It will create a lot of jobs and generate a lot of money,” Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said at a legislative interim meeting this month.

Sand plays a vital role in the fluids that are injected under intense pressure into bore holes drilled horizontally through oil and gas deposits. Once the formation fractures, the chemical cocktails are sucked out, leaving behind the sand as “proppant” that keeps the cracks open so the hydrocarbons can flow up the well.

Industry’s use of sand doubled to 61.5 million tons between 2012 and 2014 but dropped off with the collapse in oil prices. Demand is expected to exceed 100 million tons this year as drill rigs return to work in response to rebounding prices, putting an intense crimp on supplies that could delay the coming drilling boom.

The need for sand is also expected to grow as fracturing technologies improve, extending the reach of cracks that need to be propped, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Now exceeding 2 miles, horizontal wells reach ever greater distances, also increasing the amount of sand needed per well.

The best sand for fracking comes in rounded, spherical grains, about 0.5 to 1 millimeter in diameter. They must withstand the powerful forces associated with fracking, a property known as “crush resistance.” Facets and impurities can render sand useless if the grains collapse.

In a study commissioned by SITLA, the Utah Geological Survey analyzed sand from 60 sites around the state and found promising sources in southwest Utah’s eolian sand dunes.

“We specifically looked at roundness and sphericity, grain size and chemistry,” said UGS geologist Andrew Rupke. “It has to be relatively pure quartz sand. You don’t want a bunch of other material in there because then [the grains] tend to be weak, or might react with the drilling fluids and plug up the pores.”

Utah grains tend to be smaller than optimal, but faced with a supply crunch, industry has lowered its standards, Rupke said. Unconsolidated deposits and friable sandstone like those found in Utah are preferred sources because they require less processing to produce usable sand.

The SITLA report did not analyze crush resistance because those tests cost $3,000 each.

“We will lease the lands,” Faddies said, “and let the lessee do the tests.”

Martin’s firm has conducted some of these costly tests, and the results have shown the grains to be suitable, he said, if not ideal for fracking.

Two Kane County locations, around Coral Pink Sand Dunes west of Kanab and the sand hills outside Big Water, hold vast deposits of potentially acceptable sand, but they are still about a 350-mile haul to Utah’s oil patch.

Faddies believes SITLA’s sand deposits closer to or even in the Uinta Basin would offer more economical sources for industry.