In the driftless area where Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin meet along the Great River Roads the big news story this year has been a normally boring subject, sand. To us motorcyclists sand where we don’t expect it is a potentially deadly hazard. To the citizens with the misfortune of living alongst the roads frequented by the armadas of sand hauling trucks and the local taxpayers who will pay for repairing the roads they damage, sand is becoming serious business.
A bit of background… Oil production has benefitted of late from some new wrinkles in the old science of “fracking”, a process where impervious rock is shattered with explosives or high pressure sand, etc. to break it up and allow oil to flow to the well. Add in some other new tech like horizontal drilling and suddenly a lot more oil has become more expensively recoverable. The natural gas business is a couple years ahead of the oil business in this process, and their success in increasing production has dropped natural gas prices to levels not seen in years. The oil biz may be headed to a similar price crash, as more fuel efficient vehicles are in fact reducing oil consumption in developed countries while more supply comes online from the Bakken oilfields that have put once quiet places like Williston in the news. The same new technologies can be implemented in oil fields around the world, raising the potential for an oil glut, price drops, and another near abandonment of the oil patch like we saw in the 1980s… It’s telling that the count of working oil drilling rigs in the Bakken has peaked and fallen about 20% of late… That’s pretty much been the history of the extractive industries for over a centuries, with boom following bust as miners and drillers rush to free their products from the ground, then saturate and crash the market with it.
So it is that a bunch of folks have suddenly incorporated and are trying to become major merchants of frac sand, a major sorta convenient source of which is the aforementioned tri-state riverside motorcyclist mecca. One of the curiouser corporate entities set up to exploit the area’s sand is Superior Sand Systems Inc., a corporation that appears to have no assets beyond some recently acquired permits to set up a transload facility in Wabasha, MN for frac sand coming from a pit 30 odd miles away near Mondovi, WI. Now in their defense, Superior Sand Systems (SSS) website says they’re looking for $9,000,000 in investment, but there’s no mention of stock registration or such usual legally required protections for investors. Said website is void of the usual pictures of mining equipment and trucks, and the only depiction of a transportation asset appears to be a stock photo of a Canadian Pacific (CP) train. It’s notable also that one of SSS’s executives is a transplant from CP.
Now for a company that requested and was granted a permit to truck 200 USAMax (STAA 40 short ton) trucks a day the 30 odd miles from proposed sand pit to the CP tracks in Wabasha, it seems like more than a few assets would be needed. SSS’s permit request detailed a 14 hour workday, which works out to a truck every 4 minutes, Which should require at minimum one of those big yellow wheel loaders to load the trucks at the pit to the tune of a half million or so. Better figure too on a big dozer or three at up to a million apiece just to get the overburden out of the way. And trucking? 60 miles on hilly two lane and small river towns plus loading and unloading time and a stop at the Quick Trip for the driver to relieve himself and grab another food like tube shaped warm object off the roller grill and coffee should make for about a two hour round trip. With a load every 4 minutes, that’ll take about 30 semi tractors and dump trailers at $150,000 a crack… Figure in spares and such and that adds up to another 5 million $$$. Then they gotta get the tools of the transload- a drive over hopper and conveyor capable of moving 6 tons a minute and a couple hundred thousand bushels of hopper space ain’t cheap. And we ain’t even bought train yet! Proper pneumatic cars for sand are unobtanium, unless you can make a substantial deposit and wait a year or more. Even hopper cars meant for grain are in short supply, and loading them with heavier sand is hard on them so leasers would be reluctant to let SSS use them at any price. And while new railcars carry the load of four USAMax trucks, they sell for six figure prices and to get decent rates SSS will need over a hundred of them to make a unit train, that purchase alone would eat up all of the nine million dollars SSS is trying to raise and then some.
Of course, this assumes the whole scheme will work as planned… The area is known for fierce winter storms that will leave trucks with wheels spinning on the steep grades in zero visibility like we’ve seen in recent blizzards. Then comes spring and the Mississippi floods the bottomland roads to the river bridge, and in the fall tourists drawn by the autumn leaves will slow SSS’s trucks.
So what we have here is a body corporate, Superior Sand Systems, Inc., that is one step up from a paper company yet threatens to move a couple hundred truckloads of sand a day into a dwindling market but doesn’t even appear to own a wheelbarrow. And did I mention that there are three perfectly good railroads closer to their reputed sand pit than CP in Wabasha? Makes one wonder if SSS’s major investor is CP…
And SSS isn’t the only bunch of speculators stricken with frac sand fever… Another bunch proposes to set up a transload just across CP’s tracks in Wabasha. And as if Wisconsin highway 37 in it’s narrow and twisting valley isn’t a challenging enough “haul road”, frac sand speculators want to open pits along WI88, a paved cowtrail that’s a playground for motorcyclists and a graveyard for big trucks.
And the Frac sand follies are just beginning.