Sunday, August 25, 2013

Frac Sand Plays Getting Harder To Find

Frac sand is indispensable to natural gas producers using horizontal fracturing to reach deposits.  The frac sand sector will likely mirror the natural gas sector it supplies with proppant.  Natural gas prices crashed in 2012 as US exploration and production exploded.  Frac sand producers will probably follow the same path.  Only the lowest-cost producers will survive.

Stocks in this sector include Hi-Crush Partners (HCLP) and US Silica Holdings (SLCA), while other frac sand producers appear to be privately held.  The determinant of value for any mineral producer is the difference between the long-term average market price of its product and its cash cost of production.  I can't find any public source for the current market price of uncoated silica and other forms of frac sand.  The USGS page on silica has multi-year reports on the broad "sand and gravel" genre but nothing specific to frac sand.  Maybe the price in in the minerals yearbook; I'm not excited enough to look.  This is a very young sector that only recently attracted special attention.

Check out Hi-Crush Partners' 10-K from March 2013.  Calculating their cost of production means parsing Item 7 MDA.  Dividing their cost of production ($18.5M for 2012) by their annual production of 1.49M tons gives us a cost of $12.41/ton.  They reduced the amount of royalties they must pay so costs for 2013 will likely be lower.  Check out US Silica Holdings' 10-K from February 2013.  I honestly can't find their cash cost of production for frac sand from reading their Item 7 MDA.

My search for hard asset hedges against hyperinflation will not extend to frac sand.  The sector is too small and is a hostage to natural gas prices.  The production figures for the sector aren't readily available and neither is the market price for this commodity.  Someone with deep industry experience in specialty sand and gravel products might be able to make some money here.  It won't be me.

Full disclosure:  No positions in any companies mentioned at this time.