Worthless just two years ago, Texas sand now brings in billions

Standing high on top of a windswept dune in the West Texas plains, Greg Edwards stares out into a vast ocean of sand. It stretches in every direction, interrupted only by an occasional strip of asphalt or clusters of silos that rise high into the sky.

Edwards runs a frack-sand mine. And those silos mark the presence of his rivals, who suddenly seem to be popping up everywhere. As he turns 360 degrees under the blistering midday sun, he calls out their names one by one: “Badger ... Atlas ... High Roller ... Alpine ... Black Mountain ... Covia.”

Twelve months ago, none of them existed – not even the mine owned by Edwards’ employer, Hi-Crush Partners. It was the first of its kind here in West Texas. Day one was July 31, 2017. Ten others immediately followed. And another 10 or so are now hustling to get started.

Together, they will mine and ship some 22 million tons of sand this year to shale drillers all around them in the Permian Basin, the hottest oil patch on Earth. It is a staggering sum of sand, equal to almost a quarter of total U.S. supply. And within a couple years, industry experts say, the figure could climb to over 50 million tons.

David Cutbirth, the longtime mayor of the nearby town of Monahans, is dumbfounded by it all. Until the miners arrived, these dunes were a quasi-barren wasteland – good only for weekend adventurers zipping around on buggies. And the price of sand was, well, zero. Today, it fetches $80 a ton, making this year’s haul alone worth about $2 billion.

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