he advent of hydraulic fracturing has already sparked a new gold-rush for shale gas and oil. Now the new mining technique, better known as fracking, is creating a rush for sand.
Developers in the shale-rich regions of South Dakota and Texas are racing to build new sand mines, after demand for the material – a key ingredient in the fracking process – surged.
Frackers are expected to use nearly 200m tonnes of sand this year, around a third more than in 2013, as they race to exploit as many shale sites as possible.
Every time they establish a new well, the sand is mixed with water, acid and other chemicals, and blasted down the bore at high pressure, breaking open small pockets in the shale rock. The technique allows energy companies to access huge quantities of oil and gas that would have been too expensive to mine without fracking, and so previously went untapped.
The rising demand for sand is led by the increase in fracking, but it has also been compounded by an increase in the amount of sand used in each individual well. It typically takes around 1,800 tonnes of sand to frack a single site, but companies experimenting with more have found that wells are up to 30pc more productive when they are blasted with extra sand.
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Around a fifth of onshore wells are now fracked with extra sand, but the method could be used in around 80pc of all new shale wells, according to research by RBC Capital Markets.
Unsurprisingly, sand prices have started climbing, amid expectations that demand will outstrip supply by around 25pc this year.
They are likely to rise even more amid growing concerns about the environmental impact of sand mining. Taxas and North Dakota may be more lenient towards the practice, given they stand to become the direct beneficiaries of fracking within their state.
However, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, have seen a public backlash over traffic, dust and air pollution, caused by the dozens of new mines that have opened up in the last four years. These states produce a high-grade sand known as Northern White, which is favoured fro fracking because its round crystal can withstand extremely high heat and pressure.