Proppant Industry

[Source: Taken from S-1 filing of Smart Sand, Inc. (ca. 4Q2016)]

PROPPANT INDUSTRY OVERVIEW

Unless otherwise indicated, the information set forth under “—Industry Trends Impacting Our Business,” including all statistical data and related forecasts, is derived from The Freedonia Group’s Industry Study #3302, “Proppants in North America,” published in September 2015, Spears & Associates’ “Hydraulic Fracturing Market 2005-2017” published in the second quarter 2016, PropTester, Inc. and Kelrik, LLC’s “2015 Proppant Market Report” published in March 2016 and Baker Hughes’ “North America Rotary Rig Count” published in July 2016. We believe that the third-party sources are reliable and that the third-party information included in this prospectus or in our estimates is accurate and complete. While we are not aware of any misstatements regarding the proppant industry data presented herein, estimates involve risks and uncertainties and are subject to change based on various factors, including those discussed under the heading “Risk Factors.”

Overview

The oil and natural gas proppant industry is comprised of businesses involved in the mining or manufacturing of the propping agents used in the drilling and completion of oil and natural gas wells. Hydraulic fracturing is the most widely used method for stimulating increased production from wells. The process consists of pumping fluids, mixed with granular proppants, into the geologic formation at pressures sufficient to create fractures in the hydrocarbon-bearing rock. Proppant-filled fractures create conductive channels through which the hydrocarbons can flow more freely from the formation into the wellbore and then to the surface.

Types of Proppant

There are three primary types of proppant that are commonly utilized in the hydraulic fracturing process: raw frac sand, which is the product we produce, resin-coated sand and manufactured ceramic beads. The following chart illustrates the composition of the U.S. market for proppant by type.

 

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Pricing Trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking hydraulic frac sand as part of its Producer Price Index (“PPI”) related to commodities in 2012. A chart of their Frac Sand PPI is below.

 

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Raw Frac Sand

Of the three primary types of proppant, raw frac sand is the most widely used due to its broad applicability in oil and natural gas wells and its cost advantage relative to other proppants. Raw frac sand has been employed in nearly all major U.S. oil and natural gas producing basins, including the Barnett, Eagle Ford, Fayetteville, Granite Wash, Haynesville, Marcellus, Niobrara, DJ, Permian, Utica, Williston and Woodford basins.

Raw frac sand is generally mined from the surface or underground, and in some cases crushed, and then cleaned and sorted into consistent mesh sizes. The API has a range of guidelines it uses to evaluate frac sand grades and mesh sizes. In order to meet API specifications, raw frac sand must meet certain thresholds related to particle size, shape (sphericity and roundness), crush resistance, turbidity (fines and impurities) and acid solubility. Oil and natural gas producers generally require that raw frac sand used in their drilling and completion processes meet API specifications.

Raw frac sand can be further delineated into two main naturally occurring types: white sand and brown sand. Northern White, which is the specific type of white raw frac sand that we produce, is considered to be of higher quality than brown sand due to the monocrystalline grain structure of Northern White frac sand. Brown sand (also called Brady or Hickory sand) has historically been considered the lower quality raw frac sand, due to its polycrystalline structure and inferior angularity, strength and purity characteristics. Northern White frac sand, due to its exceptional quality, commands premium prices relative to other types of sand. Northern White frac sand has historically experienced the greatest market demand relative to supply, due both to its superior physical characteristics and the fact that it is a limited resource that exists predominately in Wisconsin and other limited parts of the upper Midwest region of the United States. However, even within Northern White raw frac sand, the quality of Northern White raw frac sand can vary significantly across deposits.

Resin-Coated Frac Sand

Resin-coated frac sand consists of raw frac sand that is coated with a resin that increases the sand’s crush strength and prevents crushed sand from dispersing throughout the fracture. The strength and shape of the end product are largely determined by the quality of the underlying raw frac sand. Pressured (or tempered) resin-coated sand primarily enhances crush strength, thermal stability and chemical resistance, allowing the sand to perform under harsh downhole conditions. Curable (or bonding) resin-coated frac sand uses a resin that is designed to bond together under closure stress and high temperatures, preventing proppant flowback. In general, resin-coated frac sand is better suited for higher pressure, higher temperature drilling operations commonly associated with deep wells and natural gas wells.

Ceramics

Ceramic proppant is a manufactured product of comparatively consistent size and spherical shape that typically offers the highest crush strength relative to other types of proppants. As a result, ceramic proppant use is most applicable in the highest pressure and temperature drilling environments. Ceramic proppant derives its product strength from the molecular structure of its underlying raw material and is designed to withstand extreme heat, depth and pressure environments. The deepest, highest temperature and highest pressure wells typically require heavy weight ceramics with high alumina/bauxite content and coarser mesh sizes. The lower crush resistant ceramic proppants are lighter weight and derived from kaolin clay, with densities closer to raw frac sand.

Comparison of Key Proppant Characteristics

The following table sets forth what we believe to be the key comparative characteristics of the primary types of proppant, including Northern White raw frac sand that we produce.

 

Brown Raw Frac Sand

Northern White
Raw Frac Sand

Resin-coated

Ceramics

Product and Characteristics •  Natural resource

•  Quality of sand varies widely depending on source

•  Natural resource

•  Considered highest quality raw frac sand

•  Monocrystalline in nature, exhibiting crush strength, turbidity and roundness and sphericity in excess of API specifications

•  Raw frac sand substrate with resin coating

•  Coating increases crush strength

•  Bond together to prevent proppant flowback

•  Manufactured product

•  Typically highest crush strength

Crush Strength up to 12,000 psi up to 12,000 psi up to 15,000 psi up to 18,000 psi
Relative Price Least Expensive ×                                                                      Ø Most Expensive

Source: API; Stim-Lab, Inc.; company provided information; The Freedonia Group, September 2015

Proppant Mesh Sizes

Mesh size is used to describe the size of the proppant and is determined by sieving the proppant through screens with uniform openings corresponding to the desired size of the proppant. Each type of proppant comes in various sizes, categorized as mesh sizes, and the various mesh sizes are used in different applications in the oil and natural gas industry. The mesh number system is a measure of the number of equally sized openings there are per linear inch of screen (composed of a grid pattern of crisscrossed wires) through which the proppant is sieved. For example, a 30 mesh screen has 30 equally sized openings per linear inch. Therefore, as the mesh size increases, the granule size decreases. A mesh size of 30/50 refers to sand that passes through a 30 mesh screen but is retained on a 50 mesh screen. As defined by John T. Boyd, 100 mesh sand refers to sand that passes through a 70 mesh screen but is retained on a 140 mesh screen.

Frac Sand Extraction, Processing and Distribution

Raw frac sand is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined and processed. While the specific extraction method utilized depends primarily on the geologic setting, most raw frac sand is mined using conventional open-pit bench extraction methods. The composition, depth and chemical purity of the sand also dictate the processing method and equipment utilized. After extraction, the raw frac sand is washed with water to remove fine impurities such as clay and organic particles. The final steps in the production process involve the drying and sorting of the raw frac sand according to mesh size required to meet API specifications.

After this processing stage, most frac sand is shipped in bulk from the processing facility to customers by rail, barge or truck. For high volumes of raw frac sand, transportation costs often represent a significant portion of the customer’s overall cost, which highlights the importance of efficient bulk shipping. Due to the midcontinent location of Northern White raw frac sand mines, rail is the predominant method of long distance sand shipment from the region. For this reason, direct access to Class I rail lines (such as Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific) is an important differentiator in the industry. Our Oakdale facility has access to two Class I rail lines. The presence of an onsite rail yard capable of storing multiple trains, like the rail facility at our Oakdale plant, provides optimal efficiency. Rail shipment can occur via manifest trains or unit trains. Manifest trains, also called mixed-freight trains, are considered less efficient because these trains switch cars at various intermediate junctions in transit and routinely encounter delays. By contrast, unit trains, like those we employ at our Oakdale facility, tend to travel from origin to destination without stopping at intermediate destinations or multiple switching yards. The capability to ship via unit train, and simultaneously manage multiple unit trains at the production facility, enables reliable and cost effective delivery of high volumes of sand.

Demand Trends

According to Spears, the U.S. proppant market, including raw frac sand, ceramic and resin-coated proppant, was approximately 52.5 million tons in 2015. Kelrik estimates that the total raw frac sand market in 2015 represented approximately 92.3% of the total proppant market by weight. Market demand in 2015 dropped by approximately 28% from 2014 record demand levels (and a further estimated decrease of 43% in 2016 from 2015) due to the downturn in commodity prices since late 2014, which led to a corresponding decline in oil and natural gas drilling and production activity. According to the Freedonia Group, during the period from 2009 to 2014, proppant demand by weight increased by 42% annually. Spears estimates from 2016 through 2020 proppant demand is projected to grow by 23.2% per year, from 30 million tons per year to 85 million tons per year, representing an increase of approximately 55 million tons in annual proppant demand over that time period.

 

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Demand growth for raw frac sand and other proppants is primarily driven by advancements in oil and natural gas drilling and well completion technology and techniques, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. These advancements have made the extraction of oil and natural gas increasingly cost-effective in formations that historically would have been uneconomic to develop. While current horizontal rig counts have fallen significantly from their peak of approximately 1,370 in 2014, rig count grew at an annual rate of 18.7% from 2009 to 2014. Additionally, the percentage of active drilling rigs used to drill horizontal wells, which require greater volumes of proppant than vertical wells, has increased from 42.2% in 2009 to 68.4% in 2014, and as of July 2016 the percentage of rigs drilling horizontal wells is 77% according to the Baker Hughes Rig Count.

According to its “Drilling and Production Outlook” published in June 2016, Spears estimates that drilling and completion spending will increase from an estimated $49 billion in 2016 to $144 billion in 2020, driving an estimated increase in the total active rig count to 1,089 active rigs by 2020, with the estimated percentage of horizontal wells being drilled at 62%. Moreover, the increase of pad drilling has led to a more efficient use of rigs, allowing more wells to be drilled per rig. As a result of these factors, well count, and hence proppant demand, has grown at a greater rate than overall rig count. Spears estimates that in 2019, proppant demand will exceed the 2014 peak (of approximately 72.5 million tons) and reach 77.5 million tons even though the projection assumes approximately 10,000 fewer wells will be drilled. Spears estimates that average proppant usage per well will be approximately 5,000 tons per well by 2020. Kelrik notes that current sand-based slickwater completions use in excess of 7,500 tons per well of proppant.

We believe that demand for proppant will be amplified by the following factors:

 

improved drilling rig productivity, resulting in more wells drilled per rig per year;
completion of exploration and production companies’ inventory of drilled but uncompleted wells;
increases in the percentage of rigs that are drilling horizontal wells;
increases in the length of the typical horizontal wellbore;
increases in the number of fracture stages per foot in the typical completed horizontal wellbore;
increases in the volume of proppant used per fracturing stage;
renewed focus of exploration and production companies to maximize ultimate recovery in active reservoirs through downspacing; and
increasing secondary hydraulic fracturing of existing wells as early shale wells age.

The following table illustrates the steadily increasing intensity of proppant use in those wells.

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Wells in unconventional reservoirs are characterized by high initial production rates followed by a steep decline in production rates during the first several years of the well’s life. Producers must continuously drill new wells to offset production declines and maintain overall production levels. Additionally, operators are beginning to perform secondary hydraulic fracturing of existing wells in order to maintain overall production levels. We believe these efforts to offset steep production declines in unconventional oil and natural gas reservoirs will be a strong driver of future proppant demand growth.

Recent growth in demand for raw frac sand has outpaced growth in demand for other proppants, and industry analysts predict that this trend will continue. As oil prices have fallen, operators have increasingly looked for ways to improve per well economics by lowering costs without sacrificing production performance. To this end, the oil and natural gas industry is shifting away from the use of higher-cost proppants towards more cost-effective proppants, such as raw frac sand. Evolution of completion techniques and the substantial increase in activity in U.S. oil and liquids-rich resource plays has further accelerated the demand growth for raw frac sand.

In general, oil and liquids-rich wells use a higher proportion of coarser proppant while dry gas wells typically use finer grades of sand. In the past, with the majority of U.S. exploration and production spending focused on oil and liquids-rich plays, demand for coarser grades of sand exceeded demand for finer grades; however, due to innovations in completion techniques, demand for finer grade sands has also shown a considerable resurgence. According to Kelrik, a notable driver impacting demand is increased proppant loadings, specifically, larger volumes of proppant placed per frac stage. Kelrik expects the trend of using larger volumes of finer mesh materials such as 100 mesh sand and 40/70 sand, to continue.

Supply Trends

In recent years, through the fall of 2014, customer demand for high-quality raw frac sand outpaced supply. Several factors contributed to this supply shortage, including:

 

the difficulty of finding raw frac sand reserves that meet API specifications and satisfy the demands of customers who increasingly favor high-quality Northern White raw frac sand;
the difficulty of securing contiguous raw frac sand reserves large enough to justify the capital investment required to develop a processing facility;
the challenges of identifying reserves with the above characteristics that have rail access needed for low-cost transportation to major shale basins;
the hurdles to securing mining, production, water, air, refuse and other federal, state and local operating permits from the proper authorities;
local opposition to development of certain facilities, especially those that require the use of on-road transportation, including moratoria on raw frac sand facilities in multiple counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota that hold potential sand reserves; and
the long lead time required to design and construct sand processing facilities that can efficiently process large quantities of high-quality raw frac sand.

Supplies of high-quality Northern White raw frac sand are limited to select areas, predominantly in western Wisconsin and limited areas of Minnesota and Illinois. The ability to obtain large contiguous reserves in these areas is a key constraint and can be an important supply consideration when assessing the economic viability of a potential raw frac sand facility. Further constraining the supply and throughput of Northern White raw frac sand, is that not all of the large reserve mines have onsite excavation and processing capability. Additionally, much of the recent capital investment in Northern White raw frac sand mine was used to develop coarser deposits in western Wisconsin. With the shift to finer sands in the liquid and oil plays, many mines may not be economically viable as their ability to produce finer grades of sand may be limited.